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Blind justice: Google lawsuit silences elected state prosecutor

Mountain View moneybags tip the scales

Comment Google's success in "assassinating" a democratically-elected legal opponent last week raises troubling questions about corporate power and accountability. The feisty attorney for the USA's poorest state is now trying to make peace, after being on the receiving end of a highly unusual lawsuit from Google.

Even if you will have no truck with the Hollywood lobbying machine, you should know the facts. A global corporation which is expected to bank $60bn in revenue this year and which is worth $382bn, has silenced an elected prosecutor.

Google's income is 30 times that of the General Fund in Mississippi; its market valuation is four times the entire state's GDP. What did Jim Hood do to make himself Google's enemy? You may be surprised by the answer, which, it turns out, has nothing to do with Hollywood.

Let's examine what happened to him - and what questions it raises.

How did Jim Hood become Google's Public Enemy No.1?

In some US states, citizens vote for their state prosecutors – they're elected representatives, not nominees. They answer to the people. Google, obviously, is not democratically accountable; it's a multinational corporation. The nature of its work means it is constantly pushing the boundaries of the law, particularly wherever the ownership or use of data is in dispute. And Google pushes hard.

So hard, in fact, that earlier this year it was accused of running "a floating kingdom undisturbed by any and all nation-states and their laws". German newspaper the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (pdf, 24 pages, English) added: "Expropriation and exploitation of the data of a continually monitored society is the first rule of informational capitalism. Google is in the process of creating a supra-state."

In the UK, for example, Google has argued the UK has no jurisdiction over the company.

But shouldn't such global information processing corporations, of which Google is the largest and most famous, be held to account by the people? In the US, state prosecutors have a feisty tradition. Twenty of them pursued Microsoft – then went after the federal government for making what they considered an overly cosy settlement. The state attorneys thought the DoJ had sold out.

New York's attorney Eliot Spitzer went after ten of the USA's largest corporations, including Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and CSFB for their role in creating the dotcom bubble: publishing fraudulent "research" that hyped worthless internet stocks. The ten contributed over $1.4bn in "relief" and agreed to a range of new regulations. Again, it was the states' attorneys tackling corporate power; the George W Bush administration wasn't interested.

Ten years ago the good citizens of Mississippi voted in a Democrat state attorney general called Jim Hood. Hood is certainly in the combative tradition: he's a well-liked Democrat in a Republican state, and had shown himself to be a fearless prosecutor. Hood had gone after the KKK and he'd gone after Big Pharma. That took him into new territory. Hood was appalled at what he saw.

For years, Google had profited from the advertising of rogue pharmacies, many of which were selling dangerous fake drugs. It did so despite being warned to stop. And promising to stop. Only a joint FBI-FDA sting busted the operation, and the bust, alleged the prosecutors, showed that the operation went far beyond a handful of sales staff, as one state attorney says.

"Larry Page knew what was going on,” RI federal prosecutor Peter Neronha claimed to the Wall Street Journal. The settlement saw Google pay out $500m in forfeiture in return for a non-prosecution agreement.

Hood became engaged when he looked at the settlement itself. Google continued to profit from rogue sites. For example, Google helpfully completed the query "buy oxycodone" into "buy oxycodone online no prescription cod". Hood asked why, if Google could amend its results in response to governments around the world, it couldn't amend them to protect Mississippians? In June last year his department issued subpoenas. Hood also went after Google over privacy issues, including the Safari data slurp, winning the attorneys general $17m, and collected a payout over its WiFi sniffing. He also mentioned other rogue sites.

And that tiny part of his work would become big news – in really disturbing circumstances, last week.

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