USA v. Google Week 7

$26.3 Billion. The DOJ revealed on Friday that this is the amount Google paid to secure default status on devices and browsers in 2021. How much default search engine status is worth to Google has been a key battle throughout the trial and this massive sum is an unavoidable fact. It recharacterises the utopian tones with which Google described both its business practice and trial preparation this week — and will surely loom over the testimonies of the weeks to come.

Seeking Disclosure

The Prosecution scrutinised Google’s pre-trial preparations this week as they accused Google employees of destroying trial evidence. They directed the Court’s attention to Jim Kolotouros’s deposition concerning the chat histories in internal Google conversations. Kolotouros, a VP at Google, downplayed the importance of Google Chat workplace conversations; he claimed that he ‘do[es] not use Google Chat as a means for engaging in substantive communications about business matters.’[1] His contention is firmly in the interests of Google’s executive team; the DOJ have repeatedly exhibited instances of Google employees deciding to delete their chat histories — an act which Kolotouros ‘do[es] not recall’ having done.[2] If the Prosecution can convince the Court that Google executives use ‘history off’ chats for important business discussions, then the Judge might view any exhibits that show employees deleting these chats as an indication of destroying evidence pertaining to the trial. The consequences of such a judgement would be severe for those personally accountable — and would cast doubts over the defence’s overall integrity.

The Other Side of the Story

This question — whether Google employees have intentionally destroyed evidence pertaining to the trial — functions as a valuable interpretative tool; it illuminates the public’s need to treat Google’s defence with at least a moderate degree of scepticism. Such scepticism is especially valuable for this week’s proceedings as Google began its case in chief on Thursday. Google called Dr Prabhakar Raghavan, who heads Google’s Search Ads and Search teams, to speak to the macroscopic benefits that Google brings to consumers and advertisers. Evidence for the utopian vision of Google which Dr Raghavan expounded — a Google that makes information more accessible to the public, that is concerned with quality and user-experience, that simplifies online advertising — lies in a Google slide deck from 2008. The ‘core beliefs’ of Google’s Ad Quality team include the ‘objective of delivering the most relevant information’ to users via ads.[3] Revenue comes behind user experience in Google’s list of priorities. It was with principles such as these that Dr Raghavan hoped to persuade the Court that Google has always been an indispensable, benevolent force in the digital ecosystem. This point forms a vital origin for Google’s defence because they must convince the Court that their business model does not create the harms which the DOJ have outlined for the last six weeks.

Yet the DOJ’s cross analysis of Dr Raghavan punches holes in this idealist thinking. The DOJ exhibited email threads which suggest that Google’s ‘core beliefs’ did not survive the test of time. Dr Ravaghan sent an email to other Google executives in 2019 in which he seems reluctant to implement a private browsing feature, although he acknowledges that ‘people care increasingly about privacy’.[4] Google’s reluctance to launch such a product, despite the popularity of DuckDuckGo, has already been a focus of the DOJ’s. The DOJ attribute this reluctance to financial incentives: in another email exchange, Dr Raghavan diagnoses a common complaint among leaving engineers in Search Ads that ‘“management” has held them to the 20% bar [per annum increase in ad revenue] … and they feel pressured to perform … by reaching into user experience impact that they wouldn’t have contemplated a couple of years ago’.[5] Dr Raghavan’s anecdote illuminates the widening chasm between the prioritisation of user experience, which underwrites Google’s ‘core beliefs’, and its business practice. It illuminates a monomaniacal fixation on the bottom line.

Looking Forwards

The DOJ seems to possess a limitless ability to produce exhibits which reveal the brute, financial incentives beneath Google’s ‘History & Vision’.[6] Google’s defence will succeed or fail by the extent to which they can produce an alternative reality to the DOJ’s — one in which Google emerges as a highly-profitable, yet verifiably altruistic and consumer-serving business entity. The fact that the initial spokesperson of Google’s defence has himself diagnosed the bloodless logics of Google’s business practices suggests they might find this to be a hard task.  

[1], p. 2.

[2], p. 2

[3], p. 4.

[4], P. 1

[5], p. 1.

[6], p. 3.

Header Image courtesy of Mitchell Luo on Unsplash (licensed for free via Unsplash Licence).