Google Wants Safeguards for Information in Antitrust Fight

Google Wants Safeguards for Information in Antitrust Fight

SEATTLE — Google fired its opening salvo in what is expected to be a protracted antitrust fight with four dozen states, demanding more protections before it hands over confidential business documents sought by investigators.

In a petition filed on Thursday in Texas state court of Travis County, Google, along with its parent company Alphabet, sought a protective order against Ken Paxton, the attorney general of Texas, who is spearheading the multistate antitrust investigation into the company.

The petition said Mr. Paxton had not provided sufficient safeguards for how his office shares Google’s sensitive business documents with outside consultants to the investigation. Google said some of those outside consultants were also working for competitors or complainants.

It is first legal challenge made by Google since the attorneys general from 48 states as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico said in September that they were starting an antitrust investigation into the market power and corporate behavior of Google, with Mr. Paxton taking the lead.

On the same day it announced the investigation, Mr. Paxton’s office served Google with a civil investigative demand, seeking what the company called “highly proprietary, competitively sensitive, and otherwise confidential business information” including internal planning memos, strategic documents and white papers. Google has until Nov. 9 to start producing documents related to the 233 requests made by the office.

“Given the breadth of confidential business information sought by the OAG,” Google wrote, referring to the Office of the Attorney General of Texas, “and the heightened risks of leaks and disclosure to Google’s competitors and complainants in this and other regulatory proceedings, a protective order is appropriate and necessary.”

Google’s petition is largely a procedural move, but it offers insight both into who is helping the attorneys general and what Google is worried about as it enters what could be a long legal tussle. In addition to the state inquiries, House and Senate committees, the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission are also looking into the company’s business practices.

In a statement, the Texas attorney general’s office said it was caught off-guard by Google’s petition “challenging our right to employ many of the most knowledgeable in this complex field.” It said it had been working with Google to discuss “appropriate confidentiality provisions” to ensure that the information would not be used by the company’s competitors, but what Google wanted would compromise the investigation.

“Google’s petition is nothing more than an effort to hamstring the investigation. But Google is not entitled to choose the states’ expert or run the states’ investigation,” Marc Rylander, communications director for Mr. Paxton, said in a statement.

Google said it wanted to be notified in advance before the attorney general’s office shared its confidential company information with third parties such as consultants and sought limits on the ability of outside consultants with access to those documents from working with Google’s competitors.

Google also asked for a “cooling-off” period to prevent consultants from jumping into another job advising competitors based on what it learned during the course of the investigation.

Google pointed to the background of two of the three consultants to the investigation as particularly worrisome. One had served as a consultant to companies that have been vocal in their criticism of Google, including News Corp. and the Russian search engine Yandex. The other, a former lawyer for Microsoft, had also represented clients in other antitrust and other cases against Google.

“This is an extraordinarily irregular arrangement and it’s only fair to have assurances that our confidential business information won’t be shared with competitors or vocal complainants,” said Jose Castaneda, a Google spokesman.

It is not unusual for government investigations to coordinate antitrust arguments with competitors of the company it is investigating. This also happened in the monopoly case against Microsoft in the 1990s.

“This looks like a sideshow,” said David Segal, executive director at Demand Progress, an activist group focused on issues of corporate power and internet freedom. “These are standard delay and deflect tactics by which one of the most powerful corporations in the history of the world are trying to avoid scrutiny.”

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