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Are Google’s Confidentiality Agreements Illegal?

A current Google Inc. employee has sued the tech giant over its rules for protecting confidential information, alleging they prohibit workers from whistleblowing or even just complaining to their spouse about their boss. Employment lawyers say that if the allegations in the complaint are true — a big if, of course — Google’s rules may well be overly restrictive.

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A current Google Inc. employee has sued the tech giant over its rules for protecting confidential information, alleging they prohibit workers from whistleblowing or even just complaining to their spouse about their boss. Employment lawyers say that if the allegations in the complaint are true — a big if, of course — Google’s rules may well be overly restrictive.

According to the complaint, filed on Dec. 19 in California Superior Court in San Francisco, Google makes employees agree not to disclose “confidential information,” which is allegedly defined as “any information in any form that relates to Google or Google’s business that is not generally known, including employee data.” According to the complaint, these rules make it difficult for Google employees to interview for new jobs, blow the whistle on wrongdoing, or even complain about their boss. (The Information, a tech website, first reported on the complaint here.)

The civil lawsuit was brought under the California Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA), which allows aggrieved employees to sue on behalf of themselves and other employees for labor violations. The law provides for up to $200 for each aggrieved employee per pay period, which, according to the plaintiff, could add up to billions of dollars for a company with 65,000 employees.

In a statement, Google called the lawsuit baseless. “Transparency is a huge part of our culture. Our employee confidentiality requirements are designed to protect proprietary business information, while not preventing employees from disclosing information about terms and conditions of employment, or workplace concern,” the company said in a statement.

Google could be in trouble if it does define confidential information as broadly as the plaintiff alleges, says Calvin Blackburn, a labor and employment attorney in Atlanta. “If the lawsuit is correct, Google will be expanding the definition of what confidential information is beyond what I’ve ever seen,” he says.

But other allegations in the complaint do not present such serious concerns, Blackburn says. For example, a policy that prohibits employees from speaking to the media is common and not overly problematic if it is not overbroad, he says.

General counsel should keep an eye on the case and whether the plaintiff succeeds in bringing the case under the PAGA, says Albert Randall, a labor lawyer at Franklin & Prokopik, who represents employers. “Utilizing the law in this way really increases the potential damages,” Randall says. “So GCs may really want to examine their confidentiality policies, weigh how restrictive they want them to be and balance that against the likelihood of litigation.”

– Kristen Rasmussen, Corporate Counsel

The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of their clients or other attorneys in their firm.

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