A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction that at least temporarily prevents Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood from issuing a subpoena to Google as part of his investigation into whether the search giant facilitates piracy.
Google filed suit against Hood in December, claiming that the investigation was motivated by lobbying from the MPAA and Hollywood’s six major studios. Some of the details of the lobbying effort were revealed in documents exposed in the hacking attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment.
“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,” wrote Kent Walker, Google’s general counsel. “We’ll continue working to protect people using our services: In 2014 alone, we removed more than 500 million bad ads and over 180 million YouTube videos for policy violations.”
An MPAA spokeswoman said the organization had no comment. A spokeswoman for Hood did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate’s preliminary injunction also bars Hood from filing civil or criminal charges. But he also indicated that he has yet to issue a final decision on the investigation. According to the Associated Press, Wingate told attorneys on Monday, “The fact that the court has issued an injunction does not mean the court has reached a final decision in the case — just that the court wishes to maintain the status quo.” He set a schedule for proceedings in the coming months.
Google contended that the subpoena was “unlawful and burdensome.” It cited immunity granted by the Communications Decency Act, which protects Internet companies from liability for third-party content, as well as First Amendment protections.
In the Oct. 21 subpoena, the Mississippi attorney general claimed that he has “reasonable grounds to believe” that Google was violating the Mississippi Consumer Protection Act in a number of ways, including its autocomplete function, which automatically fills in search terms for the user. The subpoena demanded that Google turn over records related to ads, search results and internal policies for illegal drugs, child pornography, pirated content, fake IDs and stolen credit card numbers, among other things.
In December, Walker suggested that Hood’s action was motivated by studios’ effort to revive, through the states, SOPA, anti-piracy legislation that was sidelined in Congress in 2012. Walker said Google was “deeply concerned” about reports that the studio trade association was conducting a “secret, coordinated campaign” via state officials, and even did the “legal legwork” for Hood. The MPAA responded, saying that Google’s “effort to position itself as a defender of free speech is shameful” and that its legal challenge was “a transparent attempt to deflect focus from its own conduct.”
In a brief filed late last month, Hood said that what Google was asking for was “quite extraordinary in that it asks this court to interfere with an ongoing state investigation by the attorney general before having to respond to a validly issued administrative subpoena.”
Update: The decision has caught the attention of a number of industry groups.
Tom Galvin, executive director of the Digital Citizens Alliance, said, “Ultimately what lies in the balance of a final court decision is whether it will be more difficult for state law enforcement officials to protect victims of online crime. If Google is no longer aiding criminals, as it did in the prescription drug case, it should have nothing to worry about. But Google wants to avoid any responsibility. The fact that Google has profited from the illegal promotion and sale of drugs, counterfeits and content theft — and now stands to profit from pro-ISIS videos on YouTube — speaks volumes about how Google puts profits ahead of Internet safety and consumer protection.”
Galvin was referring to Google’s 2011 agreement with the Department of Justice to pay $500 million for allowing online Canadian pharmacies to place advertisements through its AdWords program.
Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Assn., praised the ruling.
“This is a good day for creators, innovators and all who rely on the Internet as a platform of expression,” he said. “Attorney General Hood should cease his attacks on one of the most robust and innovative growth sectors of the U.S. economy. We urge the MPAA to stop facilitating government actions which chill speech and, instead, embrace the Internet as a transformative and beneficial distribution vehicle for artists and studios.”