Government Legal Action Isn’t About the Money (But Isn’t the Money Grand?)

“It wasn’t about the money,” U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island Peter Neronha said.  It was about “Google’s improper advertising practices.”

He’s talking about $500 million that several government agencies, most in Rhode Island, will be collecting from the Internet company after catching it selling advertising to companies that sold prescription medicine across national lines.  Technically, it’s called a “forfeiture,” and it does include a forfeit of the company’s advertising revenue.  However, according to Providence Journal reporter Bruce Landis, it also includes “the gross revenue made by the pharmacies from their sales to U.S. customers.

The agencies that will be on the receiving end of the windfall may proclaim that it’s about something other than the money, but outside observers should be forgiven for concluding differently.  After all, the Providence Journal identified the money as the headline and included a set-aside box of the huge amounts that the various agencies will be receiving above the fold on its front page.

As I suggested in December, U.S. citizens ought to find these stories disconcerting.  At that time, David Whitaker, the criminal who helped the agencies snare Google, was seeking leniency in his sentence.

Put objectively, the incentive structure is now such that government agencies, with police power and part of a government with tax and regulatory authority, can directly receive huge sums of money for catching private organizations in questionable activity.  In the case of settlements, nothing illegal has to be proven; suspicion just has to be sufficiently justified for government agencies to promise investigation and harassment.  In the case of law enforcement agencies, the money then goes to purchase “everything from shotguns to surveillance equipment.”

It all begins to look like a recipe for abuse better left to autocracies and organized crime.

On that note, I’ll turn my attention back to the Rhode Island government’s attempts to enter the full-scale casino business…