Thursday 22 February 2018

Judge to rule in Google probe row

Google is locked in a court battle with an attorney general who claims the company's search engine aids criminals
Google is locked in a court battle with an attorney general who claims the company's search engine aids criminals

Does Google help criminals by allowing its search engine to lead to pirated music or by having its autocomplete function suggest illegal activities?

Mississippi attorney general Jim Hood thinks so and wants to investigate further, but the internet search giant says companies are not liable for what people say and do online - and now the two are locked in a court battle.

The Mountain View, California-based company says Mr Hood is infringing on its free speech rights and wants US district judge Henry Wingate to issue an injunction saying it does not have to answer a subpoena from Mr Hood.

Google also wants the judge to bar Mr Hood from filing civil or criminal charges.

During a three-hour hearing, lawyer Peter Neiman told Judge Wingate that Mr Hood was, indirectly though his investigation, trying to give states the power to filter the internet.

"They're trying to cloak themselves in, 'let's make the internet safer'," Mr Neiman said.

But the Democratic attorney general says Google profits from illegal activity through its own conduct.

The showdown between Google and Mr Hood escalated last year when Mr Hood sent a 79-page subpoena to Google demanding the company produces information on whether it is helping criminals by allowing its search engine to lead to pirated music, having its autocomplete function suggest illegal activities and sharing YouTube ad revenue with the makers of videos promoting illegal drug sales.

The judge said he would rule on February 24.

Google argues that the US Congress made it immune from Mr Hood's investigation when it passed the Communications Decency Act in 1996. That law says internet service providers are not responsible for content provided by others. Mr Neiman said everything Mr Hood cited was third-party content.

"There are real, concrete things that Google did to change its constitutionally protected editorial judgment to try to mollify the attorney general," he said, saying the company changed its autocomplete filter and began limiting ads on some YouTube videos.

Assistant attorney general Doug Miracle said federal law did not make Google immune from investigation. It might be a defence against a lawsuit, he said, but Mr Hood filed no such suit and was still trying to determine facts.

"They're asking the court to tell the attorney general he cannot investigate," Mr Miracle told Judge Wingate.

The state lawyer denied that Mr Hood was "chilling" Google's speech rights.

"The only thing that would be chilled would be the attorney general's ability to enforce the consumer protection laws," he said.

Google and supporters say Mr Hood is part of a covert campaign by film studios to use legal action to achieve enhanced piracy protection that Congress has rejected.

Mr Neiman pointed to a letter that Mr Hood sent Google that was largely drafted by the Motion Picture Association of America, as well as the hiring of former Mississippi attorney general Mike Moore by the Digital Citizens Alliance, a non-profit group funded by movie studios and other companies.

Mr Miracle said Mr Neiman's discussion of the movie industry was a "real red herring" and Mr Hood was working only with crime victims.

"He's going to work with the people and the industries who are affected by the problem," Mr Miracle said.

Press Association

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