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Friday, April 23, 2021

If You Liked Google’s ‘Working Lunch’ with FTC, You’ll Love Its ‘Section 35T’

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Every so often, Google does an exercise for employees that may sound simple enough.

In a Google Hangout (except it’s not really a hangout), a communications staffer tells the entire company about a paper that was recently published that, in the paper’s subtitle, describes Google’s business practices as “consistent with monopolistic control.”

For an hour-long time slot, Google employees hear from civil and advocacy groups that are fuming about Google’s efforts to control search engines and ads.

“Google now owns more than half of all search in America,” reads the summary of a group of five dissident groups that make up the “We Are Disruptors” organization that distributed the paper, “Combating Google’s Antitrust Law Violations in The World Wide Web.”

Employees have the chance to confront Google executives and its leaders. At the end of the session, the company invites the dissident groups for a question-and-answer session, and then announces a blackout of the information gleaned in the session, for an hour.

In the end, a group of 1,200 employees at Google developed a “Section 35T cease and desist” letter, in which Google employees say that “there is reason to believe Google is violating the antitrust laws in several U.S. states.”

The letter is signed by a group of Googlers at different level, who each pay their own way to watch the conference.

The letter, dated Oct. 1, notes: “Employees have clearly been told to focus on regulations of the U.S. law for antitrust compliance and we have thus far been unable to obtain official guidance from Google’s legal department about whether the company is undertaking that compliance or not.”

The question, though, is whether Google employees can legally say what they believe, according to antitrust law.

The letter is titled “Section 35T,” which in English, means “statute of limitations.”

In the past, companies, including Google, have closed channels of communication with employee activism and instead promoted it through intranet channels.

Both Google and The Times have repeatedly said that they are not anti-competitive and their activities comply with the law.

Google, which is based in Mountain View, Calif., and employs 40,000 workers worldwide, has come under fire from critics since the European Union launched an investigation into whether Google is involved in illegal anti-competitive practices with some of its search engines.

In March, Google changed its search algorithms to protect webpages that don’t use its own ad and search strategies, though the company denies breaking antitrust laws.

In June, Google agreed to an $22.5 million settlement with a group of advertisers who claimed that Google was pressuring them to pay ad fees to be excluded from so-called “sponsored links.”

One employee who paid his own way to watch the Hangout said he liked the tone of the session, but he said Google executives refused to answer any questions. “Once in a while you have these sessions, but you get a couple who are ‘I am not comfortable answering that because we’re not going to have an entire company shut down as a result of it,’” he said.

His colleague who paid his own way agreed.

“They’re not going to respond to questions and listen to legitimate concerns,” the person said. “No one wants that.”

Others were less critical of the Hangout, though one source who watched the session said: “If you’re going to do this, you really need to take it seriously. Otherwise it’s just a lot of food for thought.”

Read the full story on the Washingtonian.

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