DOJ seeks court sanctions against Google over ‘intentional destruction’ of chat logs

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Google should face court sanctions over “intentional and repeated destruction” of company chat logs that the US government expected to use in its antitrust case targeting Google’s search business, the Justice Department said Thursday.

Despite Google’s promises to preserve internal communications relevant to the suit, for years the company maintained a policy of deleting certain employee chats automatically after 24 hours, DOJ said in a filing in District of Columbia federal court.

The practice has harmed the US government’s case against the tech giant, DOJ alleged.

“Google’s daily destruction of written records prejudiced the United States by depriving it of a rich source of candid discussions between Google’s executives, including likely trial witnesses,” the filing said.

“We strongly refute the DOJ’s claims,” Google

(GOOGL) said in a statement. “Our teams have conscientiously worked for years to respond to inquiries and litigation. In fact, we have produced over 4 million documents in this case alone, and millions more to regulators around the world.”

The federal government’s call for sanctions adds to the pressure Google faces as it battles antitrust suits on multiple fronts, and highlights a rare move by prosecutors.

Through a setting in its chat software, Google employees can save chat history for up to 18 months — but only if the setting is manually enabled, the US government said in its filing, adding that Google routinely trained and encouraged employees to discuss sensitive topics over chat messages they knew would be auto-deleted the next day.

The filing cites several attached exhibits in which Google employees, sensing that a conversation was about to stray into sensitive territory, suggested that the discussion continue on the chat platform, with history turned off.

The government’s filing follows a similar sanctions motion against Google by Epic Games, maker of the hit video game “Fortnite,” in a separate antitrust case related to Google’s app store. The two sides faced off in an evidentiary hearing last month; on Feb. 15, the judge in the case ordered Google to produce more chat messages.

Thursday’s DOJ filing also cites the Epic evidentiary hearing, saying that it proved Google destroyed records of at least nine individuals who were each considered potential trial witnesses, and that the federal judge overseeing that case agreed the chats could have contained relevant evidence but that Google “did not systematically preserve those chats.”

“Google admitted that — for litigations spanning the past five years — it has never preserved all chats for relevant individuals by turning chat history on,” the DOJ filing said.

It was not until earlier this month that Google agreed to preserve the chats, the filing alleged, after failing to disclose to prosecutors its practice of deleting history-off chats after 24 hours.

It is not the first time DOJ has tussled with Google over evidence. Last year, in the same case, the agency asked the court to sanction Google for a program known as “Communicate with Care,” in which the company allegedly trained employees to copy lawyers on emails as a way to claim attorney-client privilege on communications that were business sensitive but did not seek legal advice and did not merit confidentiality.

While Judge Amit Mehta declined to issue sanctions at the time, he ordered that all of the emails in question be re-reviewed.