Speak Using Our Words, Or Do Not Speak

May 14, 2021

Google has learned from legal misfortune, both its own and other companies’. That is why, “To Head Off Regulators, Google Makes Certain Words Taboo.” The Next Web post outlines several of the major antitrust investigations the company currently faces at home and abroad. It also describes the role language played in past lawsuits brought against Google and, notably, Microsoft. We learn employees are given specific instructions on their language and other parts of communication both inside and outside the company. Having acquired some internal documents, the journalist known as The Markup writes:

“The taboo words include ‘market,’ ‘barriers to entry,’ and ‘network effects,’ which is when products such as social networks become more valuable as more people use them. ‘Words matter. Especially in antitrust law,’ reads one document titled Five Rules of Thumb for Written Communications. ‘Alphabet gets sued a lot, and we have our fair share of regulatory investigations,’ reads another. ‘Assume every document will become public.’ The internal documents appear to be part of a self-guided training session for a wide range of the company’s more than 100,000 employees, from engineers to salespeople. One document, titled ‘Global Competition Policy,’ says it applies not only to interns and employees but also to temps, vendors, and contractors. The documents explain the basics of antitrust law and caution against loose talk that could have implications for government regulators or private lawsuits. In one of the documents, which appear to be written by the legal team, employees are advised to choose their words carefully and use only third-party data when referencing Google’s ‘position in search’ in sales pitches. They are further cautioned never to print or hand out their slides.”

The documents helpfully suggest alternative words, including “industry,” “space,” “area,” or the name of a region instead of “market;” “valuable to users” rather than “network effects;” and “challenges” instead of “barriers to entry.” Though employees may (mis)use terms innocently, history tells us lawyers and regulators can and will seize upon certain definitions to build their cases. The higher in the company one is, the riskier careless language becomes. Especially sensitive are phrasings that suggest Google dominates any market, intends to “crush” its competition, or makes any choice for its own advantage rather than for the benefit of users. Because, of course, Google would never do that.

Cynthia Murrell, May 14, 2021

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