Several internal Google memos obtained by The Markup outline words employees can and can’t use in hopes that avoiding certain buzzwords could stave off antitrust investigations.
For example, the documents say Googlers should avoid words like ‘market,’ ‘barriers to entry’ and ‘network effects,’ a term that means products like social networks become more valuable as more people use them.
One document says that “words matter” and outlines five “rules of thumb” for written communications. In perhaps a more telling instance, one document says, “Alphabet gets sued a lot, and we have our fair share of regulatory investigations. Assume every document will become public.” Alphabet is Google’s parent company.
Another document references Microsoft’s 1998 antitrust prosecution, which centered around the company using Windows and its dominance in the PC market to bundle Internet Explorer. Specifically, the document references a Microsoft employee that threatened to “cut off Netscape’s air supply.”
“We are not out to ‘crush,’ ‘kill,’ ‘hurt,’ ‘block’ or do anything else that would be perceived as evil or unfair,” the Google document says.
“These are completely standard competition law compliance trainings that most large companies provide to their employees,” a Google spokesperson told The Markup in an email. The spokesperson also said the company instructs employees “to compete fairly and build great products,” and notes that Google had the trainings “in place for well over a decade.”
Gizmodo notes that one of the documents is dated August 2019, and that it likely came after the E.U. fined Google a third time for antitrust violations.
Both the U.S. Justice Department and state Attorneys General are preparing to bring antitrust lawsuits against Google in the coming months (likely over the company’s dominance in online advertising). Coupled with increased scrutiny from the U.S. government — a recent congressional antitrust hearing saw CEO Sundar Pichai grilled alongside other tech CEOs — it comes as no surprise that Google is trying to protect itself by censoring internal language.
However, antitrust lawyer Gary Reback told The Markup that anticompetitive intent isn’t part of the legal argument. Instead, the government must establish an anticompetitive effect. So while internal communications from high-level executives showing anticompetitive intent may carry some weight, Google’s effort to protect itself with careful use of language likely won’t help much.