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Summary:

Google has made a change to its search algorithm to downgrade sites that post mugshot photos, but this decision raises some troubling questions about how much we rely on Google to choose what we see and don’t see

bill-gates_1899522i

As described in a New York Times story on the weekend — one that for some reason chose to save this information until the end — Google has tweaked its search algorithm and downgraded the Page Rank of so-called “mugshot” websites, which post police snapshots of random people and in some cases charge to have them removed. MasterCard has also taken steps to cut such sites off from using its online payment systems.

Everyone seems pretty happy about this turn of events so far (except the mugshot site operators, of course), but I confess that I find the whole thing a little disturbing.

Obviously, Google tweaks its algorithms all the time to boost or lower the ranking of different types of content. And both it and MasterCard are private corporations that can do whatever they wish — within reason — when it comes to their business. We may even agree that mugshot sites are reprehensible and deserve to die. But what happens when Google and/or MasterCard decide to target other sites? What if they choose to cut off WikiLeaks, for example, as MasterCard did in 2010?

Emily Bell tweet

Is there a right to be forgotten?

The rise of dedicated mugshot sites is a relatively recent phenomenon. According to the Times, one of the first was started in 2010 by a former credit-card-fraud artist who put together a website based on Florida arrest photos, and now there are close to 100 of them — all of which aggregate booking photos from public websites run by state and regional police departments. Many charge a fee to have photos removed, and/or use Google ads to monetize their traffic. To most, this seems like a thinly-veiled exercise in extortion.

One problem is that booking photos are posted even for relatively minor offenses, and they can exist online long after — even if the arrest did not lead to a conviction. This can make them a source of entertainment when the photo is of someone like Microsoft founder Bill Gates when he was in college, or of a notoriously unstable celebrity such as Lindsay Lohan — but when it is a young person who finds their employment opportunities curtailed as a result of a teenaged lapse in judgement, it suddenly becomes much less amusing.

Lindsay 3x2

The problem with mugshot sites is arguably just a small piece of a much larger problem, which is the fact that information about you — including things you did or said or posted online in a fit of anger, youthful indiscretion, etc. — lasts forever. This is why the European community has been debating a “right to be forgotten,” which could require sites like Google to remove information under certain circumstances. But as a number of people have pointed out, such laws would have potentially huge implications.

As Hilary Mason, former chief scientist at Bitly, noted in a blog post, mugshot sites take advantage of information that is in a weird kind of public-private gray area: it is theoretically public, and comes from official sources, but in the past it was difficult or even impossible to collect easily — since in many cases it would have required going to dozens or hundreds of physical locations and photocopying documents. Google (ironically) now makes this kind of thing ridiculously easy.

“What the mugshot story demonstrates but never says explicitly is that data is no longer just private or public, but often exists in an in-between state, where the public-ness of the data is a function of how much work is required to find it.”

Google chooses what we see and don’t see

Google HQ

What bothers me about Google and MasterCard’s decisions is that mugshot websites are based on the aggregation of public — and in many cases potentially useful — information. The fact that some (although not all) ask for payment to have photos removed may border on extortion, but the reality is that they aren’t that different from a site like The Smoking Gun, or other services that offer potentially important background information about a whole range of people: politicians, judges, doctors, etc.

As the New York Times story notes, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said downgrading or removing such sites raises some pretty big red flags. “What we have is a situation where people are doing controversial things with public records,” said Mark Caramanica of the RCFP. “But should we shut down the entire database because there are presumably bad actors out there?” As one mugshot provider (whose site charges for removal but also has a “courtesy removal service”) put it:

“No one should have to go to the courthouse to find out if their kid’s baseball coach has been arrested, or if the person they’re going on a date with tonight has been arrested. Our goal is to make that information available online, without having to jump through any hoops.”

Is Google going to somehow differentiate between the good uses of this kind of information and the bad ones? And is MasterCard going to do the same? It seems — to me at least — that there’s a very real risk that this kind of behavior could quickly become a slippery slope, and eventually result in Google and/or other platforms doing what Amazon did when it removed WikiLeaks documents from its S3 cloud servers in 2010 (which the company claims was not the result of any pressure from the U.S. government).

If aggregating public documents for which you may not have a copyright license, or for which you charge money via MasterCard, becomes the sort of thing that Google wants to crack down on or hide from view, then WikiLeaks and other valuable sites could be in trouble. And how will we even know what we aren’t seeing, if these changes happen behind the scenes due to government or legal pressure? The power of proprietary platforms like Google to determine what we perceive about the world has never been greater.

This post was updated to reflect the fact that JustMugshots does charge for some removals, but also has a “courtesy removal service.”

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of New York magazine and Flickr user Affiliate

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  1. This hand wringing is pointless, because we need Google to fine tune the results, otherwise spammers would have a field day gaming PageRank. People who don’t trust Google to rank properly can use another engine. Ideally they would personalize the results by allowing us to provide feedback, but that might not yet be feasible.

    1. Valentine North emre Monday, October 7, 2013

      I’d rather have the old Google back, the one a decade ago that served the best results.

      Today, when I search for something, I always get the same results. If I want something slightly better, different, then another browser that doesn’t have any Google cookies helps, but not much.
      What I want is diversity, a large choice of results instead of the filtered stuff according to “popular” trends. So … I resort to a blend of bing/yahoo and duckduckgo searches. Brings back memories of Alta Vista and others, things I wished forgotten.

      1. Yep, Googles search results where better 10 years ago, before all this personalization stuff went off.

  2. You bring up excellent questions about the precedent of Google deciding what gets ranking based on their view of the intent of the content. Let’s face it, Google already decides what we see and don’t see through their famous algorithms, but their goal has always, supposedly, been relevance. This takes them off that goal and into a very murky role.

    Maybe the real issue is what’s public record. We made records public at a time when gaining access to records took effort. Effortless retrieval changes the game, but should it cause less information to be available? Is that a good thing for transparency?

    1. I don’t know, Chris, but those are good questions. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Neither Google nor Mastercard can be trusted. Period. Much of this data is public record. All the reason to stay out of trouble so that trouble doesn’t follow you.

    I don’t need Google telling me what to see or think nor do I need a credit card processor getting political.

  4. To me the issues seem pretty simple. A mugshot site which displays all mugshots is useful. I can input a name and do a check to see if a mug shot was ever taken on them. This I like, and don’t want to see it go away. A site which allows users to pay money and hide their shots is not useful, and I don’t like but don’t want Google to hide like a spam site.

    Comparisons to blackmail are out of line. Blackmail take private info and threatens to make it public. This aggregates public information and gives ppl the option of hiding it. Ultimately I think that practice devalues their product and any useful value it holds.

  5. Google wants orig content these sites just scrape and republish other content from other sites so they should not appear as top search results period and that is all they have done. The sites are still live Google just wont return the result as the top link anymore as it shouldn’t.

  6. The sites in question weren’t delisted they were demoted from scrapping content, just the run of the mill SEO violation. It’s hardly censorship and that small distinction defeats your whole argument.

  7. Can’t help but find your view on this topic disturbing: the mugshot sites are making a profit out of other peoples misery. You forget that mugshots are also taken of people not convicted for any crime, they can be wrongly and unjustly arrested, which happens a lot.

    Extorting profit out of people not convicted for a crime is not only morally questionable, in many country’s it’s illegal and both Google and MC are global companies. I believe that people should be deemed guilty first when they are convicted for a crime and not when they’re suspected for it. It’s another of the big problems in American society and I find it frankly stunning that you didn’t raise that issue here.

    You include the comment of a mugshut provider – who makes a profit on others misery and claims to be a servant of society, give me a break – but you forget to even ask the question in the article why the decision by Google and MC became what it is. Extortion is extortion, period.

    Sorry, but I find this very sloppy journalism.

  8. Jonathan Hochman Monday, October 7, 2013

    There’s really two entangled issue here.

    (1) Paid Unpublishing is a scam and should not be tolerated ever. If your business model is to dredge up embarrassing info and charge to hide it, you suck, and we want nothing to do with you.

    (2) There needs to be an understanding that some data has an expiry date. Yes, if a person is arrested, their mugshot can go online for 60 days, or some finite amount of time, and then it needs to go away, whether it’s on the primary source, or on a data aggregator’s website. After time passes, the person is convicted or the matter is dropped.

    Please remember that nobody has taken the mugshot sites offline. If you search for mugshots, you can still find them. What you can’t find is a mugshot that’s been scraped from one site and posted to another. Scraped content is against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. What Google has done is begin to enforce the rule that’s been there all along.

  9. Daniël W. Crompton (webhat) Monday, October 7, 2013

    It doesn’t surprise me coming from Mastercard, they almost always block sites which get them any negative (inter)national press.

    Approx. 1 in 25 people in the US are arrested every year. And approx. 31 in 100 arrests results in a conviction, so by far most of the people on these mugshot sites have their picture associated with a criminal offense without actually having been convicted of a crime.

    For the approx. 1 in 100 bad actors who are named and shamed there are 3 who are guilty until they prove their innocence.

    1. Daniël, your point is taken but I’ll take exception to you statistics which as a bit ‘shy’ of accurate :) There are a fewer than 4 arrests per 100,000 people in the US.

      1. And my apologies for the poor typing above…

      2. Daniël W. Crompton (webhat) Justin Riehl Tuesday, October 8, 2013

        My apologies, I saw that the source I used clarified: “The most accurate way to phrase it would be that in 2011, there were approximately four arrests for every 100 residents.”

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