A high-profile battle over whether Google must respond to an unusual and dangerous subpoena raises fundamental concerns about federal free speech law and the protections it affords hosts of online content, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) argued in an amicus brief filed today.
Attorney General Jim Hood of Mississippi issued the 79-page subpoena in October, seeking information about Google’s policies and practices with respect to content it hosts, Internet searches, and more. The invasive request appeared to be based primarily on allegedly unlawful activities of third parties who use Google’s services. Then in December, journalists reported that documents disclosed in the Sony hack outlined a Hollywood plot against Google, including plans to pressure Hood into aggressively investigating the search engine giant. In the face of these developments, and the Attorney General’s unwillingness to narrow the request, Google sought protection from a Mississippi federal court.
“Despite the dramatic storyline, this all comes down to well-established law protecting hosts of Internet content from liability for much of what their users say and do on their platforms: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act,” said EFF Intellectual Property Director Corynne McSherry. “If CDA 230 was disregarded, and online service providers were required to respond in full to subpoenas like this one, they would inevitably face extraordinary legal costs. That would be enough for most businesses to get out of the interactive content business all together, as everything from comments on news stories to sharing of home videos could be a recipe for expensive litigation.”
In the amicus brief filed today, EFF argues that Congress’ express intent was to encourage the development of new communications technologies by holding online speakers responsible for what they say—instead of the soapboxes where they say it. It’s a principle that has allowed the Internet and the myriad online communities it contains to thrive.
“CDA 230 is perhaps the most valuable law we have for protecting innovation and online speech,” said EFF Frank Stanton Legal Fellow Jamie Williams. “The Mississippi subpoena is an obvious violation of federal statute, and the court should grant Google the protection that Congress intended.”