House Judiciary Chair threatens to hold Google in contempt of Congress for failing to produce subpoenaed documents
Representative Jim Jordan, a Republican from Ohio and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, during a field hearing in New York, April 17, 2023.
Stephanie Keith | Bloomberg | Getty Images
House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, threatened enforcement action against Google that could include holding the company in contempt of Congress for failing to produce documents the committee subpoenaed to learn about tech company communications with the Biden administration.
In a letter to a lawyer for Google shared exclusively with CNBC, Jordan called the company’s compliance so far “insufficient” and demanded it hand over more information. If the company fails to comply fully by its new May 22 deadline, Jordan warned, “the Committee may be forced to consider the use of one or more enforcement mechanisms.”
Jordan issued subpoenas to the CEOs of Google parent Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Meta and Microsoft in February, demanding they hand over communication with the U.S. government to “understand how and to what extent the Executive Branch coerced and colluded with companies and other intermediaries to censor speech.” Jordan requested the companies comply by March 23. He made the request after initially asking the companies to hand over the information voluntarily, but said they had not sufficiently complied.
While several other tech giants were subpoenaed in connection with the committee’s investigation, the other companies have so far appeared more responsive than Google to the demands, according to a source familiar with the matter.
Congress can hold individuals in contempt for refusing to provide information requested by a committee. Doing so requires a committee vote and then a floor vote, with a simple majority. Republicans currently hold the majority in the House 222-213.
Criminal contempt cases can be referred to the Justice Department, or Congress could seek a civil judgement from a federal court to try to enforce the subpoena, according to a 2017 paper from the Congressional Research Service.
The committee may also seek to take other actions against Google, like deposing the company’s management or trying to restrict federal dollars from going to Google in future legislation.
In the letter, Jordan laid out several ways Alphabet has failed to adequately comply with the committee’s demands.
He said that Alphabet “has frustrated the Committee’s review of the responsive material by unilaterally redacting key information necessary to understand the context and content of the material.”
Alphabet didn’t assert that those redactions included privileged information, according to Jordan, and the committee requires unredacted documents to be handed over.
The company has recently placed some documents in a “reading room,” Jordan said, “in a form and manner that prevents and frustrates the Committee’s understanding and use of those documents and fails to comply with the terms of the subpoena without the Committee’s consent.”
He wrote that Alphabet had produced 4,000 pages of documents in response to the subpoena. But those documents have yet to include an “appreciable volume” of several types of communications the committee assumes Google would have. Those include communications with other social media platforms about content moderation, documents from Alphabet’s other subsidiary companies, communications over messaging services other than email and communications between employees about any contact with the executive branch of the U.S. government.
“The release of the Twitter Files has shown just how extensively the Executive Branch communicated and coordinated with technology companies regarding content moderation,” Jordan wrote, referring to reports on internal documents that Twitter owner Elon Musk made available to a hand-selected group of journalists when he took over the company. “We are skeptical that Alphabet’s interactions with the federal government where pressure was applied were any less concerning than those of Twitter.”
WATCH: Can China’s ChatGPT clones give it an edge over the U.S. in an A.I. arms race?