Alphabet and Google employees are trained to avoid using certain words and phrases in internal communications and “assume every document will become public,” according to a new report from The Markup. But Google says the practice, which it describes as standard compliance training, has been in effect for years.
A document titled “Five Rules of Thumb for Written Communications” states that “Words matter. Especially in antitrust law,” according to The Markup. Employees across the company, including engineers, salespeople, interns, vendors, contractors, and temp workers, are encouraged to avoid the terms “market,” “barriers to entry,” and “network effects” (the latter being a reference to how a social network gains value the more users it has). The parent company “gets sued a lot, and we have our fair share of regulatory investigations,” one of the documents reads.
Google spokesperson Julie Tarallo McAlister said that the training documents are “completely standard competition law compliance trainings that most large companies provide to their employees” and have been in place for more than a decade. “We instruct employees to compete fairly and build great products, rather than focus or opine on competitors.”
She pointed to similar employee compliance manuals from the American Bar Association and “any large American” company.
The training documents described by The Markup outline some details of antitrust law, and one document advises using third-party data to describe Google’s “position in search” and to never print or hand out slides made for presentations or sales pitches. Employees should “use the term ‘User Preference for Google Search’ and never the term market share,” according to that document. Other documents suggest using alternate terms instead of “market,” such as “industry,” “space,” or “area,” and to use “challenges” rather than “barriers to entry.”
The dangers of a company’s internal documents being used as evidence were on display last week during a hearing of tech company CEOs before the House antitrust subcommittee, when communications between Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and CFO David Ebersman became public. During a 2012 email conversation about possibly acquiring Instagram, Zuckerberg wrote, “There are network effects around social products and a finite number of different social mechanics to invent. Once someone wins at a specific mechanic, it’s difficult for others to supplant them without doing something different.”
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) said during the July 29th hearing that the documents show Facebook sought to buy Instagram to reduce competition, a key focus of the subcommittee’s investigation. “So rather than compete with it, Facebook bought [Instagram],” Nadler said. “This is exactly the type of anti-competitive acquisition the antitrust laws were designed to prevent.”
There are numerous ongoing antitrust investigations into how Google does business. Attorneys general from 50 states and territories announced an antitrust investigation into Google’s advertising and search businesses last September, and last month, California reportedly opened its own antitrust investigation into the company.
During questioning at the July 29th hearing, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that the company tries to “understand trends from, you know, data, which we can see, and we use it to improve our products for users,” but he did not directly address antitrust concerns raised by members of the committee.