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US court rejects Google’s attempt to seal transcript and documents

Slide2By Simon Davies

A US federal judge has rejected an attempt by Google to edit the transcript of a critical hearing in a lawsuit alleging wiretap violations related to Gmail ads. The released transcript is available here (downloads as pdf)

Google’s “black box” would be extremely beneficial for EU regulators who are pushing for much more openness by the advertising giant.

On Wednesday District Court Judge Lucy Koh also partially granted a plea by intervening news organizations to unseal other materials in the case, ruling that Google hadn’t shown a need for secrecy. The full ruling is here (downloads as pdf)

As outlined in a previous blog on this site, the release of these documents could provide an unprecedented insight into Google’s “black box” data analysis. This would be extremely beneficial for EU regulators who are pushing for much more openness by the advertising giant.

“The court is mindful of balancing the potential effects of disclosure to Google against the public’s need to understand the proceedings and the court’s rulings,” Judge Koh wrote in a 16-page decision.

She determined that material relating to Gmail’s technical operations could be sealed if disclosure of that data could create a security risk or pose a competitive threat. But Koh said that other documents — including evidence about the types of information Google includes in its user profiles — should be part of the public record.

Koh ruled that the transcript of a hearing held in open court, which Google had sought to redact, cannot be redacted retroactively.  Given that redacting a transcript of a proceeding in open court would have been tantamount to closing the courtroom, this is a very helpful precedent to media companies.  It echoes a very recent decision in Jewel v. NSA, in which the U.S. Government unsuccessfully attempted to censor a transcript of a hearing in open court, a proceeding described here.

Judge Koh held that “where, as here, the parties did not request closure of the courtroom, Google explicitly represented that the open nature of the hearing supported its request to seal documents associated with the briefing, and the disclosures were not inadvertent, the Court will not permit an ex post facto redaction of statements made in open court in the transcript.”