As you may know, we’ve been covering the story of Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood and his campaign against Google. A few years ago, we noted how bizarre it was that Hood and other state Attorneys General seemed to be blaming Google for all kinds of bad things online. It seemed to show a fundamental lack of understanding about how the internet (and the law!) worked. Of course, things became somewhat more “understandable” when emails leaked in the Sony Hack revealed that the MPAA had an entire “Project Goliath” designed around attacking Google, and the centerpiece of it was funding Jim Hood’s investigation into Google, including handling most of the lawyering, writing up Hood’s letters to Google and even the “civil investigative demand” (CID — basically a subpoena) that he could send.
Hood lashed out angrily about all of this, even as the NY Times revealed that the metadata on the letter he sent Google showed that it was really written by top MPAA lawyers. Hood continued to angrily lash out, demonstrating how little he seemed to understand about the internet. He made claims that were simply untrue — including pretending that Google would take users to Silk Road, the dark market hidden site that could never be found via a Google search. Hood also dared reporters to find any evidence of funding from Hollywood, and it didn’t take us long to find direct campaign contributions to his PAC from the MPAA and others.
Given all of this, we filed a Mississippi Public Records request with his office, seeking his email communications with the MPAA, its top lawyers and with the Digital Citizens Alliance, an MPAA front-group that has released highly questionable studies on “piracy” and just so happened to have hired Hood’s close friend Mike Moore to lobby Hood in Mississippi. Moore was the Mississippi Attorney General before Hood and helped Hood get into politics.
We’ve had to go back and forth with Hood’s office a few times. First, his office noted that Google had actually filed a similar request, and wanted to know if we were working for Google in making the request. We had no idea Google made such a request and certainly were not working on behalf of Google in making our request — but Hood’s office helpfully forwarded us Google’s request, which was actually a hell of a lot more detailed and comprehensive than our own. This actually is helpful in pointing to some other areas of interest to explore.
However, after some more back and forth, Hood’s office first said that it would refuse to share the emails between Hood and the MPAA’s lawyers as they “constitute attorney-client communications” or “attorney work product” and that finding the rest of the emails would… require an upfront payment of $2,103.10:
In response to your request for e-mails between this office and the Motion Picture Association of America or the Digital Citizens Alliance, we estimate it will take our IT department five hours to conduct searches for e-mails responsive to your request. The hourly figure for the lowest paid employee able and available to do this work is $30.62, for a total of $153.10.
The documents will then have to be reviewed to determine if they fall under the definition of “public records” as defined by Miss. Code Ann. §25-61-3(b), and if they are otherwise exempt from the Public Records Act. At this time, a rough estimate of the amount of time to review the requested records is thirty hours. At $65 per hour, the total, conservative estimate to review your request is $1,950. Pursuant to statute, these total estimated costs of $2,103.10 must be paid in advance. We will revise the estimate as necessary after the search is completed and we have a better idea of how many documents must be reviewed. Of course, if we are able to fulfill your request for less than the estimate, then we will refund the difference to you.
I had one further back and forth with the office, asking why these estimates seemed so high. In this day and age, how could it honestly take five hours to run a search on an email system? More importantly, how could it possibly take 30 hours of high priced time to review each document like that? I may not be a FOIA master like Jason Leopold, but I’ve never seen a response to a FOIA request like this. Normally, when a journalist is seeking records, it’s fairly standard to exempt fees, but it seems clear that Jim Hood’s office doesn’t want these emails getting out, so it’s not going to do that.
It also is already telegraphing the fact that it’s likely not going to release any of the emails that actually matter, claiming that they are either “attorney work product” or “investigative reports.” While Hood’s office says there are “nearly 900 emails” responsive to my request, it expects most of them to be exempt from public records requests. Thus, all we’d end up doing is forking over $2,103.10 that we don’t have to Jim Hood’s office to use to further its own efforts. I have no interest in further funding Hood attempting to attack fundamentals of free speech and the internet, but this little bit of obstructionism certainly is suggestive of the way Hood’s office operates, and its absolute fear of transparency.
It certainly makes you wonder why his office is so afraid to release those emails? The Sony Hack certainly revealed some questionable activities going on between Hood, the MPAA, its lawyers and the Digital Citizens Alliance. If Hood’s work with the MPAA and its lawyers and partners were truly above board, and Hood were truly committed to transparency, you’d think his office would be eager to release the emails and clear up any misconception. Unfortunately, they’d rather demand thousands of dollars from a small blog. That says a lot.