A New York Times series on secretive corporate lobbying of state attorneys general has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting today. The entire series does important digging on an area of political influence that's generally less transparent than Congressional lobbying. But most relevant to EFF was the revelation last December—through emails revealed in last year's high-profile Sony breach, as well as public records obtained by the paper—that the Motion Picture Association of America had been taking advantage of this lobbying technique to pressure Google and to advance the policy goals that fizzled with the defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).
That MPAA effort, dubbed "Project Goliath" in the leaked emails, directed at least $500,000 and perhaps over a million dollars to the political offices of state attorneys general. One recipient of that attention, Mississippi AG Jim Hood, sent a stern letter to Google in 2013; New York Times reporters determined that the letter was drafted almost entirely by MPAA's law firm. Hood followed up with a 79-page subpoena to the company last October. EFF supported Google's challenge to that invasive and overbroad subpoena with an amicus brief highlighting the relevance of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and last month a federal court agreed with that argument and halted the AG's campaign.
The MPAA was certainly aware of the New York Times series on this issue. One leaked email—from an MPAA official to executives from the Recording Industry Association of America, Sony, and dozens of others—contains a link to the first article on the topic. As the Verge reported at the time, the MPAA "seemed to look to articles on political corruption not as a cautionary tale but as an instruction manual."
Since SOPA met its spectacular political end in Congress three years ago, we've witnessed its proponents move to venues that are more and more hostile to public participation and oversight. The MPAA emails underscore that trend. It ranges from secret negotiations of trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), to a move towards inappropriate specialized agencies like the International Trade Commission, to "voluntary" industry agreements made without users at the table, to the largely unregulated world of state AG lobbying.
This move away from public scrutiny is frustrating, but it's also a testament to the increasing power of public participation. The copyright lobby was able to pass 15 "anti-piracy" statutes through Congress in the 30 years before SOPA was introduced. That streak was only broken by unprecedented online protest.
Of course, public backlash can only work where the public is informed. Reporter Eric Lipton and the New York Times should be applauded for digging into one of these anti-transparent campaigns, and for revealing an area where moneyed interests exert an undue influence on the American justice system. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, and government transparency—as well as dogged investigative reporting—is an essential first step.