Judge halts movie industry-backed probe against Google

A federal judge has agreed to put the brakes on an investigation into Google by Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood after the company complained that Hood’s inquiry was an illegal censorship campaign cooked up by Hollywood.

In a Monday ruling, U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate issued an order that will temporarily bar Hood from forcing Google to comply with the terms of a 79-page subpoena.

“Today, a federal court entered a preliminary injunction against a subpoena issued by the Mississippi Attorney General. We’re pleased with the court’s ruling, which recognizes that the MPAA’s long-running campaign to censor the web—which started with SOPA—is contrary to federal law,” Google wrote in an update to an earlier blog post describing the case.

The ruling by Judge Wingate came from the bench, and a written version is expected to follow in the next week or two.

“Google has the better side of the legal arguments,” the judge told the court, according to a spokesperson for the company.

The ruling is a major victory for Google, which filed a lawsuit challenging Hood’s 79-page subpoena in December.

The ostensible goal of the subpoena is to help Hood discover if Google is violating Mississippi laws by exposing internet users to drugs and pornography. Google, however, filed a court challenge on the ground Hood overstepped federal laws that shield internet companies from liability for what others post online.

The case has also taken on an air of intrigue in light of a secret scheme, known as “Project Goliath,” that came to light as a result of the massive hack on Sony in December 2014.

Documents disclosed by the hack suggested that the Attorney General’s campaign against Google was being underwritten by the Motion Picture Association of American, and even involved movie industry lawyers drafting legal papers for the state. The company has characterized the state investigation as a dirty-tricks campaign by the movie industry to promote the goals of a failed anti-piracy law known as SOPA.

Hood has already come under fire for being among Democratic state attorneys general who appear to have been farming out the investigative powers of their offices to private law firms in return for a cut of the profits.

Monday’s ruling does not put an end to Mississippi’s investigation, but rather puts it on hold while the parties file more evidence. Hood has tried to frame his investigation as a populist campaign on behalf of the state’s citizens and argued that Google should pursue its claims of over-stepping in state, not federal court.

Google and Mississippi meet in court over secret MPAA lobbying

A devastating hack on Sony late last year exposed embarrassing details about Hollywood’s darker side, including a secret campaign by the movie industry to bring about new copyright controls. Dubbed “Project Goliath,” the plan relied in part on the Motion Picture Association of America colluding with state officials in order to investigate and harass Google.

Now, in a Friday hearing that promises to be equal parts constitutional law and political theater, Google will try and persuade a federal judge in Jackson, Mississippi, to rein in the state’s controversial Attorney General, Jim Hood.

“For nearly two years, Attorney General Hood has pressured Google to remove and censor content that he and Hollywood don’t like — even though he lacks legal authority to do so,” said Google’s general counsel, Kent Walker, in a statement. “Attorney General Hood’s extraordinary 79-page subpoena is an unjustified assault on free speech and we’re asking the federal court to set it aside. We regret having to take this matter to court, and we are doing so only as a last resort.”

Hood’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment over an affair that not only showed him to be acting as an agent of the movie industry, but that exemplifies a larger pay-to-play phenomenon in which Democratic attorneys general exercise their official powers at the behest of private industry and law firms — and receive a cut of the proceeds.

In the case of Hood, the current details came to light after the Verge discovered documents from the Sony hack that showed how lawyers from the movie industry had drafted documents that the Attorney General had sent to [company]Google[/company] as part of an investigation.

That investigation is ostensibly about protecting Mississippi consumers from online threats like drugs and pornography, but appears instead to be a stalking horse for the movie industry. Internet activists fear the industry’s goal is to use state AGs in a back-door attempt to implement the substance of SOPA, an unpopular anti-piracy bill that collapsed in early 2012.

As for Hood, the Google investigation may be no more than an attempt to use the investigative powers of his office to wring out some money for the state of Mississippi, and for his own campaign coffers.

“Hood’s crusade against Google looks and smells like an effort to simply squeeze the billion-dollar to provide some settlement money,” wrote the Natchez-Democrat, a community news site, in a January editorial.

Such criticism, however, appears to be doing little to deter Hood, who is framing his actions as a populist effort to defend the people of Mississippi, and last month filed a motion to dismiss Google’s complaint that he had overreached with his MPAA-backed subpoena.

Friday’s hearing, which will address both Hood’s dismissal motion and a request by Google for a temporary restraining order against him, will put the two sides’ theories to the test.

According to a brief filed by Google, the state of Mississippi is usurping federal statutes that shield internet companies from copyright and indecent acts carried out by their users. Google also argues that Hood is treading on its constitutional rights with “specific threats of prosecution, and there is no dispute that the First Amendment forbids threats of prosecution based on protected speech.”

Hood’s lawyers, meanwhile, will attempt to tell the judge that its subpoena falls within Mississippi’s investigative powers, and that Google can always go to state court if it fears its rights are being abused.

A ruling on the case is likely to come in coming weeks. I’ll update if there is major news out of today’s hearing. In the meantime, if you want to get a flavor of the legal issues at play, here is a copy of Google’s brief with some of the relevant parts underlined:

Google Reply Brief

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