Judge Blocks Mississippi Effort to Subpoena Google in MPAA-Backed Probe

Ruling delays request to collect information on company’s practices to screen illegal content

A federal judge on Monday put on at least temporary hold Mississippi Attorney General James Hood’s effort to investigate Google for not doing enough to remove illegal content, including pirated content appearing in Web searches. Leaked Sony Pictures documents suggest the effort was backed by MPAA.

U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate granted Google’s request for a preliminary injunction that will prevent Hood from executing a subpoena intended to determine if the company is facilitating illegal activity.

In his four-page ruling, Hood said he was acting because Google’s challenge of the subpoena raised a valid federal question and because a failure to delay the subpoena could lead to Google suffering a substantial immediate injury by turning over records sought in the subpoena.

He cautioned that while he was granting Google’s request to allow sufficient time to more closely examine arguments in the case, his order shouldn’t be seen as a decision that Hood can’t eventually move forward.

“The court is satisfied that Google has satisfied its burden [for a preliminary injunction],” wrote the judge. “By doing so, this court is not forecasting any ultimate ruling on the merits.”

Hood in a 79-page subpoena on Oct. 21 demanded extensive information from Google on its advertising and screening of illegal and sexual content that can come up in its search results.

The subpoena came amidst pressure on Google and other Web site searches from MPAA, demanding sites do a far more proactive job of screening out pirated content from their Web searches.

The New York Times and The Verge and other publications, quoting documents released from the hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment, said Hood was among state attorneys general targeted by MPAA in project named Goliath designed to increase the pressure on Google to be more proactive. The New York Times said an organization backed by Microsoft, Expedia and Oracle, also backed the effort.

The hacked Sony documents, the publications said, showed that MPAA had a team of lawyers preparing draft of subpoenas and legal briefs for the attorneys general to use. The New York Times reported some of the letters Hood sent Google closely resembled those prepared by MPAA’s lawyers for the attorneys general.

Consumer groups active in the Stop Online Privacy Act fight in 2011 and 2012, a fight MPAA lost, reacted strongly to the subpoena.

In a letter and a subsequent legal filing, the Center for Democracy & Technology and 12 other organizations said the filtering MPAA sought in Congress would be no better at the state level.

“When Congress tried to pass SOPA, millions of Americans signed petitions, called their representatives and commented on social media. SOPA was a bad idea at the federal level and any revival on the state level is an equally bad idea,” the organizations said.

Hood in his ruling indicated he planned to seek additional written arguments from each side, then schedule oral arguments in the case.