Google Says Mississippi Sales Probe Amounts to Censorship

Google Inc. sued to block what it called overly broad demands by Mississippi in its investigation of online contraband sales, after accusing the state’s attorney general of doing Hollywood’s bidding.

The lawsuit was filed today in federal court in Jackson, after Google, citing hacked Sony Corp. e-mails, expressed concerns about reports that the Motion Picture Association of America pushed states to pressure the search-engine giant.

In an item posted on its public policy blog yesterday and updated today, Google said the MPAA did “legal legwork” for Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood’s investigation by drafting a letter “making numerous accusations about the company” that he later sent.

The company asked the court to block Hood’s subpoena, which seeks information about how it restricts -- or doesn’t restrict -- material created by third parties and available through Google’s services and also asks for information about the importation of prescription drugs.

“Little in the subpoena seems to relate to the valid subjects of regulation by the attorney general,” Google said in its complaint. “It is instead, consistent with the attorney general’s prior public statements, designed only to impose burdensome obligation on Google in order to coerce Google to agree to the changes to its business practices.”

‘Time Out’

In a statement today, Hood struck a conciliatory tone, saying he was “calling a time out” and would seek to reach a peaceful resolution with Google. Still, he chided the company’s general counsel for “feeding the media a salacious Hollywood tale.”

“Some of its more excitable people have sued trying to stop the state of Mississippi for daring to ask some questions,” he said.

Google claimed Hood’s threats of civil and criminal enforcement violate the federal Communications Decency Act, which it said grants Internet companies “broad immunity” from prosecution for making third-party content available. Hood’s demands also violate constitutional protections of free speech and against unreasonable searches, Mountain View, California-based Google said.

‘Protected Speech’

“The effect of the attorney general’s inquiry is to chill the operation of Google’s search engine” and other services such as the YouTube video-sharing site, “threatening to silence vast amounts of protected speech,” according to the complaint.

The MPAA yesterday said Google’s “effort to position itself as a defender of free speech is shameful.”

Steven Fabrizio, the MPAA’s global general counsel, wrote about a plan by him and others in the film industry to persuade several attorneys general to pursue regulatory actions against Google, according to e-mails sent to employees at Sony, Warner Bros., Walt Disney Co., 21st Century Fox Inc., Comcast Corp.’s NBC Universal and Viacom Inc.’s Paramount Pictures.

The e-mails were among those from Sony Pictures General Counsel Leah Weil that were released by hackers.

The efforts by the MPAA amounted to an attempt to censor the Web, Google said in the blog post. The project, discussed amid the concerns about the availability of pirated content, came after “a couple of the studio heads called for a ‘get tough’ strategy,” Fabrizio said in a March e-mail.

Code Name

The e-mails don’t mention the company by name, instead referring to “Goliath,” which was the code name for Google, according to a report in the New York Times.

“Google’s blog post today is a transparent attempt to deflect focus from its own conduct and to shift attention from legitimate and important ongoing investigations by state attorneys general into the role of Google Search in enabling and facilitating illegal conduct -- including illicit drug purchases, human trafficking and fraudulent documents as well as theft of intellectual property,” Kate Bedingfield, a spokeswoman for the MPAA, said in a statement yesterday.

The case is Google v. Hood, 14-cv-981, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi (Jackson).

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