Mississippi's attorney general can resume an investigation into whether Google facilitates illegal behavior, an appeals court ruled.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday overturned a district judge who had sided with Google. U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate ruled last year that the unit of Alphabet Inc. didn't have to answer a subpoena by Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood.
Hood began complaining in 2012 that Google wasn't doing enough to prevent people from breaking the law. In October 2014, he sent a 79-page subpoena demanding Google produce information about a wide range of subjects, including whether Google helps 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. Instead of complying, Google sued.
The appeals court also dissolved the lower judge's injunction that had barred Hood from bringing any civil or criminal lawsuits against the Mountain View, California-based company, saying that a mere subpoena wasn't enough to rule that Hood was acting in bad faith.
"This injunction covers a fuzzily defined range of enforcement actions that do not appear imminent," Chief Circuit Judge Carl E. Stewart wrote for a three-judge panel. "We cannot on the present record predict what conduct Hood might one day try to prosecute under Mississippi law."
The judges also noted that Hood would have to go to state court to force Google to comply with the administrative subpoena and that Google could challenge Hood's requests then.
It wasn't a complete win for the Democratic attorney general, though. The appeals panel rejected a call by Hood to toss out the entire federal lawsuit by Google, which claims it can't be sued under the federal Communications Decency Act for what others post on the Internet. Google also claims Hood's investigation is tainted by a close association with the movie industry. Wingate had ruled Hood's subpoena was retaliation for Google not knuckling under his demands.
The judges said they weren't ruling whether Hood's subpoena is reasonable, whether Hood's actions are sufficient to allow Google to sue, or whether Google was immune federal law.
Hood spokeswoman Rachael Ring declined comment Saturday, saying Hood plans to discuss the ruling at a Monday news conference. A number of other attorneys general had asked the appeals court to dissolve the injunction, saying it was a blow to the investigative power of all states.
It's unclear whether Google will appeal.
"We're reviewing the implications of the court's decision, which focused on whether our claim was premature rather than on the merits of the case," spokesman William Fitzgerald wrote in an email Saturday.
Google has argued Hood wants to censor the Internet and violate Google's constitutional rights. Leaked documents indicated that the Motion Picture Association of America helped draft the subpoena. The movie industry and Google have been at odds over copyright law, with studios failing to win more restrictive federal laws.
Hood has defended his cooperation with the movie industry, saying he's working with victims of crimes.
More information: Online: U.S. 5th Circuit ruling: 1.usa.gov/20qx02e
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