Blind justice: Google lawsuit silences elected state prosecutor

Mountain View moneybags tip the scales


You are the nut, we are the sledgehammer

In a letter to Larry Page last year Hood wrote:

In my 10 years as attorney general, I have dealt with a lot of large corporate wrongdoers. I must say that yours is the first I have encountered to have no corporate conscience for the safety of its customers, the viability of its fellow corporations or the negative economic impact on the nation which has allowed your company to flourish.

What Hood, along with attorneys from wealthier states, was doing was monitoring Google's compliance with the rogue pharmacies settlement: he was policing Google. And he'd thrown in one item of economic interest to "mom and pop" businesses in his home state, as we'll see.

The campaign of innuendo against Jim Hood

Last week Silicon Valley VC-funded tech blog The Verge published a string of allegations culled from documents stolen from Sony Pictures. The Verge's story suggests that Google-bashing state attorneys had a cosy relationship with Hollywood trade group the MPAA.

Here it helps to put preconceptions and prejudices aside and judge the evidence for yourself. Unless you wear a tinfoil hat, you may find the Hollywood connection a little underwhelming.

The Verge said Hood's Hollywood funding was lucrative - but in reality, it barely buys a round of drinks, let alone a political advertising campaign.

Hood had taken a belated interest in rogue piracy sites – that much we know. The Sony documents disclose that MPAA lawyers were hoping he'd listen to them. The MPAA had given him some political funding, remember Hood needs to campaign to get re-elected every term. The Verge story describes this as "lucrative", but it turns out to be chickenfeed: just $2,500 last year. And Hood's other entertainment-biz campaign contributions are similarly Dr Evil-ish, totalling $4,000 from Comcast and NBC.

Bear in mind that Google has overtaken Goldman Sachs as a political campaign contributor: it is in the real big leagues of politico-financial muscle in the USA. Google now spends more on lobbying, according to Think Progress, than any other US company.

Google can also count on support from from "Friends of Google", and the free (but priceless) "non partisan" public support from the 150 think tanks, academics and NGOs that Google helps fund. For example, academic Professor Lawrence Lessig's fundraising vehicle also reflects Big Corporate Silicon Valley interests: his "grassroots" MayDay PAC has hoovered up big contributions from Valley moguls including Sean Parker, Peter Thiel and Chris "TED" Anderson.

And, as media critic Michael Wolff pointed out in his analysis of the story, VC-funded blogs like The Verge have an interest in reflecting the prejudices of their Silicon Valley backers, just as newspapers have traditionally reflected the interests of proprietors such as the Beaverbrooks and the Murdochs.

If Hood was really Hollywood's "go-to guy", he could forgiven for wondering what was the point. But copyright infringement wasn't his priority, we know from the documents.

The Verge's story coincided with requests from the New York Timesto disclose documents from Hood's Mississippi office. Again billed as a blockbuster expose, the documents revealed that Hood is friends with a former state AG (not unusual in the revolving door world of public policy) - they went and saw a ball game.

Also culled from the Sony hack – presumably by someone with a very powerful search engine – came another story aimed at discrediting state AGs, and Hood specifically. This one too felt strangely synthetic. It alleged that sinister and powerful (they must be, right?) Hollywood lobbyists had colluded with state AGs to "break the internet". There was a "secret plan" afoot to make parts of the internet disappear by tampering with the DNS system.

Wikipedia fuels the phony conspiracy - an excerpt from Jim Hood's biography page on Monday. Note "threatened" and "co-opted" - neither of which reflect the reality.

The MPAA is entitled to consider The Pirate Bay and similar commercial operations "rogue sites" but targeting ancient protocols like DNS is optimistic. As we explained here.

Another group identified by the Times as being in on the conspiracy, the Digital Citizens Alliance, is also described as a Hollywood-funded group, which is only partly true: it did much of the running in the rogue pharmacies case. Its funders include internet security companies and Microsoft. It's published one of the few worthwhile surveys into the murky world of for-profit trade in infringing movies. But what qualifies as "corporate social responsibility" becomes a nefarious plot - if it requires Google to change its practices.

The movie industry was asking for what ISPs had been ordered to do across Europe, block websites. And it admitted itself that using DNS to delist rogue sites from the internet had no likelihood of succeeding. As we wrote, "is 'not likely to succeed' is legalese for 'haven't got a hope'".

In fact, the extent of Hood's interest in intellectual property matters can be gleaned from the evidence.

Have a look how, and where, copyright figures in his 79-page Google subpoena. Just three press releases, none of which relate to copyright infringements, are on the Mississippi website. It's the very last item on the list. It's a subpoint.

What Hood wants to know is how Google is complying with a legally-binding settlement. And he's curious to know whether advertisers are being skimmed - as whistleblowers have long alleged. This is certainly of interest to small businesses, typically "mom and pop" shops, that use Google's Adsense. That's the only area where one can argue Hood "opens up a new front" against Google - and he's seeking more than compliance. And, given the economic interests of poor Mississippians and the fact the USA is reluctant to apply fraud or consumer protection laws against Google, it's hard to see why he shouldn't.

So The Verge and the New York Times were peddling a conspiracy theory that the evidence doesn't support. They were also whipping up anger among a constituency that has rallied for them before, very effectively: the "don't break the internet" crowd.

The phrase "break the internet" is a potent one. During the SOPA hysteria the Scottish Organic Producers Association was pummelled with angry comments and emails because it shares the same initials. Misled by advocacy groups claiming that it would be illegal for couples to email each other a recipe for roast chicken, and similarly misleading propaganda from Wikipedia, SOPA was derailed. When the dust settled, it emerged that Silicon Valley had outspent Hollywood on SOPA lobbying.

The innuendo this time was clear: state AGs were colluding to "break the internet" all over again. It ignited the same persecution fantasy that had fuelled the SOPA protests ("Let's get rid of this legislation so we can start enjoying culture again," wrote one Berkman scholar during the anti-SOPA campaign, somehow implying he couldn't play music, go to the theatre or watch a movie).

Then, after the stories had circulated, quite coincidentally Google dug into its pockets and launched a highly unusual lawsuit against the attorney general of America's poorest state.

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