How State Attorneys General May Help Hollywood Revive SOPA Anti-Piracy Efforts

12/16/2014 07:33 am ET | Updated Dec 16, 2014

WASHINGTON -- Earlier this year, Hollywood came up with a plan to work with state attorneys general to undermine Google, bolstering efforts to revive principles of the Stop Online Piracy Act, the controversial anti-piracy legislation fought by Google and other tech companies that failed in Congress in 2012, according to internal documents obtained by The Verge.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood (D), president of the National Association of Attorneys General, told The Huffington Post that he supports SOPA principles and wants to hold Google accountable for hosting content that prosecutors consider illegal, prioritizing busting counterfeit drugs over piracy. He said his views haven't been influenced by the movie industry.

"Google's not a government, they may think they are, but they don't owe anyone a First Amendment right," Hood told The Huffington Post. "If you're an illegal site, you ought to clean up your act, instead of Google making money off it."

SOPA would have given the government broad authority to remove content from the Internet. For example, the bill would have required search engines like Google to remove from search results websites that are repeatedly accused of copyright violations. (Under current law, if someone rips a Taylor Swift song and posts it to YouTube, the song is taken down, but users can still find YouTube.) The bill also would have permitted the government to block some copyright-infringing site domains altogether.

SOPA did not get far. A coalition of big-name tech companies, including Google and Wikipedia, protested the legislation. Some sites took part in an Internet "blackout." In January 2012, the legislation's chief sponsor pulled the bill.

The Verge, citing emails from earlier this year leaked in the Sony hack, reported the Motion Picture Association of America, an industry group, explored ways to obtain court orders to block websites, "without first having to sue and prove the target [Internet Service Providers] are liable for copyright infringement." MPAA also aimed to further the interests of entertainment companies by persuading friendly state attorneys general to take action against "Goliath"-- which The Verge interpreted to be Google -- and providing money to aid in legal defense for the state officials.

Marvin Ammori, a lawyer who advised companies in the SOPA campaign, including Google, said that the plan detailed in The Verge appears to include SOPA-like elements.

"The lesson seems to be when the public finds out about this sort of thing they get mad, so we'll figure out how to do this in a way that the public doesn't find out," said Parker Higgins, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He pointed out that when enough state attorneys general support a controversial issue, like amending the Communications Decency Act, it can be "a hard problem to deal with -- it's a 50-front war."

Hood was named in the MPAA emails. Hood, who wrote a letter largely in support of SOPA in 2011, told The Huffington Post that he had worked with Google on other issues long before he heard of the MPAA, with a focus on stopping websites from promoting human trafficking, child porn, and counterfeit drugs. But he expressed support for one of the other pillars of SOPA: removing websites accused of piracy from search engines.

Hood recalled a meeting in Boston, where a high school girl demonstrated to attorneys general how easy it was for her to find a violent version of "Django Unchained" on the Internet. "Some of the AGs were amazed at that real-time example of what Google is assisting," Hood said.

Hood has "tried to get Google to delist several sites," relating to pharmaceuticals. He said he views movies and music piracy as "insignificant" to state prosecutors, compared with more serious types of crime. But Hood said he would support a nonprofit organization coming up with a list of piracy sites that Google would remove from search results. He argued that current copyright law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, isn't adequate, because a website can get millions of takedown notices, but still do business as usual.

Google declined to comment for this story.

"Blacklists don't have a very impressive history of being reasonable and accurate," Higgins said. "More fundamentally, unaccountable restrictions on speech are deeply problematic."

An email from MPAA general counsel Steven Fabrizio showed that the organization in May proposed that entertainment industry companies budget additional money to legally assist attorneys general to fight "Goliath," according to The Verge.

Hood said the MPAA "has no major influence on my decision-making," although he noted that content creators occasionally provide reports and advice to him. "They're just reporting wrongdoing. There's nothing unusual about that," he said. Hood said he has never asked MPAA a legal question, isn't sure which lawyers they employ, and doesn't think he's ever met the organization's general counsel.

Kate Bedingfield, a spokeswoman for MPAA, said, “Our primary objective is to protect our members and their creative works." She added, "When wrongdoing is taking place online, we work with and support appropriate law enforcement officials, including the attorneys general, as do many other industries.”

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