Round 2: Mississippi AG Picks New Fight With Google Over Student Privacy

By | January 19, 2017

Mississippi’s Democratic attorney general is once again tangling with Google, alleging in a lawsuit that the company is illegally violating student privacy, even as some Republicans seek to muzzle his ability to file such civil suits.

Attorney General Jim Hood sued the California-based computer giant Friday in Lowndes County Chancery Court. In a news conference Tuesday, Hood said Google is breaking Mississippi consumer protection law by selling ads using data from services it provides to schools.

“They’re building a profile so they can advertise to them,” Hood said. “They expressly stated in writing that they would not do that.”

Google did not immediately respond Tuesday to an email from The Associated Press inquiring about the lawsuit.

Hood said a test involving a student account from the state-run Mississippi School of Math and Science in Columbus showed ads targeted to previous searches. The attorney general wants a judge to order Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc., to stop the practice.

The suit says Google could be fined up to $10,000 for each of its student accounts in Mississippi. With half the state’s school districts using Google’s email, calendar and other online services, that amount could top $1 billion.

Hood sent a letter to local school superintendents Friday asking them to preserve evidence to help with the lawsuit. He’s advising parents to consult their local school systems.

“When you give a written contract and you don’t follow it and you mine the data, then it’s a violation of the Mississippi Consumer Protection Act. It’s an unfair and deceptive trade practice,” he said.

Google sued Hood in 2014, saying his wide-ranging attempts to investigate whether Google was aiding music pirating and illegal drug sales were illegal. The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in April that Hood’s inquiry is legal. Hood said Tuesday that the investigation continues but denied that he was motivated by personal animus against Google.

“You make decisions based on the facts and the law and you set emotions aside,” Hood said.

Some Mississippi Republicans continue to try to trim Hood’s ability to file civil lawsuits without outside permission, part of a long-running Republican perception that Hood pursues civil lawsuits in part to provide income to plaintiffs’ lawyers who politically support him. Hood said outside lawyers brought the student privacy issue to him after publicity about his earlier dispute with Google.

A committee in the Republican-led House Tuesday passed House Bill 555, which would require a three-person panel of the governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state to approve plans to file any civil lawsuit where the state could win more than $250,000. That panel is supposed to approve hiring outside lawyers for big lawsuits but has never met, because Hood has instead hired lawyers according to a pre-set fee schedule that an earlier law allows as an alternative.

The bill to limit Hood’s powers now moves to the full House. Similar measures have failed in previous years.

House Judiciary A Committee Chairman Mark Baker, a Brandon Republican, said Hood’s use of civil lawsuits is a “rampant abuse” of his role.

“Every lawsuit that he files is a declaration of public policy” Baker said. “We’re the legislators, the setters of public policy. He’s the lawyer. He’s not also the client.”

Hood, though, said efforts to limit his power violate the state’s Constitution.

The attorney general’s victories have contributed tens of millions of dollars to patch state budget holes in recent years. For example, Mississippi will gain $25 million from a settlement with New York-based Moody’s Corp., over credit ratings the company assigned to various securities before the financial crisis. Last year, Hood collected about $55 million from lawsuits against large companies.

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