Google's efforts to seal key documents in a class action suit in which the Internet giant is charged with violating wiretap laws when it reads the contents of email messages on its Gmail service demonstrate hypocrisy at the company's core.
Google is in the business of gathering data and making it public, often when people want to keep it private. Indeed, the company puts it this way: "Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."
Accurate enough, I suppose, except when we're talking about information about Google itself. Google has asked Judge Lucy Koh to seal thousands of pages of documents in the Gmail case related to the motion to certify the class.
There will be a hearing on the certification question before Judge Koh at 1:30 pm Thursday, Feb. 27, in Federal District Court in San Jose.
The majority of the requests to seal and redact come directly from Google in support of its briefs. Plaintiff's have also filed some documents under tentative seal, because of a local district court rule that requires them to honor confidentiality of documents obtained from the other party that are marked confidential.
But there is good reason to hope that the Internet giant won't be able to get away with hiding the information from the public. Twenty-six media companies and journalism professional organizations including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The McClatchy Company, Reuters, and the California Publishers Association have filed a motion to intervene in the case and oppose sealing the documents.
The media organizations' brief said:
The public interest in this case cannot be overstated, as evidenced by the worldwide focus on this court’s September ruling on Google’s motion to dismiss. This case has the potential to not only affect the rights of the millions of class members, but also to set precedent on vital issues of first impression for privacy law.
Thus, the parties’ efforts to litigate this case in secrecy – and in violation of clear Ninth Circuit precedent – are especially troubling. The parties have failed to overcome the Ninth Circuit’s strong presumption that records filed in a civil case are available to the public. Neither party has presented sufficiently specific or compelling reasons to hide documents from public view. Instead, the parties have asked the Court to reflexively seal thousands of pages of documents in a case that could impact the privacy rights of millions of Americans.
The media intervenors asked that their motion be considered at Thursday's hearing on class certification. Judge Koh ruled that oral arguments weren't necessary, agreed the request should be expedited and gave the parties until March 3 to file a briefs in response to the media group. It then gets until March 7 to respond.
In its brief the media group says:
While Google focuses on the remote chance that disclosure of this information would damage its business, Google entirely fails to demonstrate why this information is a trade secret… Much of the information that Google seeks to seal relates to the general operation of an email service that is freely available to millions of people worldwide. Google does not specifically allege how this information provides independent economic value.
I think the reason is just Google's reflexive secrecy about everything it does. To the world it's just a big black box. That's why Google needs to change its mission statement. It should be: "Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful — unless it's about us."