April 23, 2015
Organizing the World’s Information at Google Legal: Kent Walker, Vice President & General Counsel
"Google's mission statement is that we want to organize the world's information and make it accessible and useful," says Kent Walker, Google's senior vice president and general counsel. "The legal department tries to help facilitate that innovation and improve the legal climate for new services that we hope will improve the lives of people around the world. That's our overarching goal."
As can easily be imagined, Walker and his team of more than 500 people in Google's legal department based in Mountain View, California, encounter a wide variety of challenging and novel issues every day.
Whether the topic of the day is obtaining patent protection for the latest cellphone innovation, solving copyright issues with Google Books that can make the world's literature digitally accessible, figuring out the international legal aspects of the deployment of high-altitude balloons to provide Internet access to remote areas in Google's Project Loon, or working with the FDA for possible approval of a "smart" contact lens that uses a tiny wireless chip to measure glucose levels in tears, Walker's group stays busy with a wide variety of unusual legal questions.
Walker is well prepared for the task, with 20 years of in-house work for high-tech companies under his belt. Before joining Google, he was deputy general counsel of eBay Inc., where he managed corporate legal affairs, litigation, and legal operations. Before that, he was executive vice president of Liberate Technologies, a leading provider of interactive services software founded by Oracle and Netscape Communications. He also served as associate general counsel for Netscape and America Online and as senior counsel for AirTouch Communications, which was later acquired by Vodafone.
Earlier, Walker was an assistant US attorney with the United States Department of Justice, where he specialized in the prosecution of technology crimes and advised the US attorney general on management and technology issues.
Given Google's role at the center of the information revolution, it's not surprising that copyright issues and privacy issues have an outsized role on Walker's plate.
For example, Google, which owns YouTube, last year settled a major lawsuit brought against it by Viacom International alleging "massive" copyright infringement of Viacom's videos. Google's lawyers successfully argued in US District Court that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act's "safe harbor" provisions shielded Google from copyright liability. Although the ruling was partially reversed on appeal, the eventual settlement was viewed as a win for Google, with no money changing hands.
In another high-profile matter, Walker is leading Google's response to the European Union's pressing of the "right to be forgotten," a set of data protection laws that are intended to remove from the public eye potentially damaging, private information about individuals.
"We have dozens of people working to implement that ruling," says Walker, "in order to permit us to comply with the order of the European Court of Justice while defending people's right to access relevant information.
In general, Walker says, Google "is committed to making sure that users have control over the information they create while ensuring that people can fully take advantage of all the services that Google can offer."
Walker's European compliance work will only become more extensive later this year. On April 15, Europe's antitrust regulator decided to file a statement of objections against Google for violating the bloc's antitrust laws. This action follows a five-year investigation and could become the biggest competition battle in Brussels since the European Union's pursuit of Microsoft a decade ago. The fines assessed against Google could theoretically exceed $6 billion. But Google rejects the claims, pointing out flourishing online competition and the benefits to consumers from continuing innovation in its products.
To provide order and balance to the myriad matters that Google's legal department handles, Walker has set up an office of Legal Operations, headed by Mary O'Carroll, head of legal operations, technology and strategy, and featuring a team of 12 legal operations managers who report to O'Carroll.
"We take pride in our legal operations management," Walker says. "The team permits us to run in a effective and efficient way as we partner with our outside law firms. It has also helped us create and use management tools to manage our documents, our patents, and our litigation."
O'Carroll, a non-lawyer with a strong business background, has held her post at Google since 2008. Walker says the responsibilities of her office include not only information technology, but also process improvement, training, and career development for the office. O'Carroll has implemented policies that have saved Google millions of dollars annually. "Mary is leading an impressive team," says Walker. "No company has yet completely cracked the code about how to run a legal department with total efficiency, but we have moved forward strongly under her leadership. We couldn't have made this much progress on these management issues without her team's efforts."
Under O'Carroll's and Walker's leadership, Google has pioneered innovative approaches to working with outside counsel, such as reverse auctions and continual reevaluation and assessment of outside firms' performance.
Walker says O'Connell and her group helped organize outside counsel "boot camps," explaining to Google's outside lawyers what the company expects from them and the "tips and tricks" of dealing with a fast-paced technology leader. The programs — held in both Google's Mountain View headquarters and its London office — were well received by the outside counsel.
"And that's not the end of it," Walker says. "You don't want to rest on your laurels. Each year, you want to improve your processes and improve the conversation between outside lawyers and in-house lawyers. There are always new ways to get better. We need to know what's not working, what's working well today, and what we hope will work even better tomorrow."
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