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First they came for the mugshot websites, but I said nothing…

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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 (s goog) 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

30 Responses to “First they came for the mugshot websites, but I said nothing…”

  1. Skip Riviera

    Matthew your post is very disturbing. If these mugshot websites, namely did the RIGHT thing when presented with evidence that charges were dropped, people were exonerated etc, there would be no need for activists to turn to other options such as Google. I use my friend as an excellent example here, she was terminated for being pregnant, after she contacted the EEOC the old boss filed a false police report of theft and supplied false information (currently being sued for the same) to get her arrested.

    The charges were dropped. She is 29 years old, with a 4-year college degree and cannot get a job because a simple Google search kicks her out the door before she even has a chance to explain. And mugshots wanted $499 to remove a photo they got for free. Even after she sent then the forms from the DA. That is just WRONG and I am HAPPY Google has shaken off these bottom feeders. I say starve them until they go away!

  2. Tirpstil

    Reminiscent of the DSK perp walk incident. Here in Europe many people were shocked that suspects could be photographed before any conviction. On questions of crime, justice and privacy, the USA simply has different standards to the rest of the West. Lower ones, I would say.

  3. David Nelson

    Bad blog post is bad. Slippery slope fallacy: there is no logical or causal inference from them removing scummy websites who game their algorithms to be top search results, and dropping things like wikileaks.
    And using a Holocaust reference in regards to this is despicable.

  4. Avelino Maestas

    Lost in some of this discussion is the basis by which Google is adjusting the PageRank of these sites: they weren’t exactly operating with a white hat philosophy toward search optimization.

    While this seems more targeted than other algorithm adjustments in the past, it at least seems rooted in the principles of those adjustments.

    Now, whether those adjustments were good for web users overall is of course a valid discussion to be having.

  5. Marvin Goodwin

    The real problem is this: We need new/updated laws that recognize the new era we’re in. Namely, we need a federal law that prohibits publishing arrest records for people who are not convicted of any crime. In the Internet era–where nothing is ever forgotten and any information is easily retrievable–this is a crucial civil liberties protection. Innocent people can be denied jobs–anywhere in the world, thanks to the Internet–because a bumbling/corrupt constable made a mistaken/unjust arrest. While a court can ultimately expunge such a miscarriage of justice the Internet never forgets.

  6. Guest11217

    What I find disturbing is the title you’ve chosen for this piece, which implies an attempt at analogizing Google’s and MasterCard’s choices to the Holocaust. Poor taste.

  7. Google has its own reasons for its algo’s. For sure, a lot has been different compared the old reliable google but this is never Google’s fault. People just would not stop looking to “leech out” on Google’s success. And from what I see, Google is trying so hard prevent this.

  8. Andi Mann

    In context then, it is interesting to hear Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt say today at Gartner Symposium, “Google is a ranking algorithm, not an truth algorithm … In the absence of legislation, ranking is best solution [to the issue of privacy and ‘digital permanence’]”.

    Is it really Google’s responsibility to do this? And if Google does, there are other search engines out there (although it seems like no one really cares).

    And there are other credit providers than Mastercard too.

    So it seems to me that if Google or Mastercard can indeed ignore or deprioritize these questionable sites, it seems like this may be a reasonable and ideally effective solution that nevertheless anyone can bypass if they want.

    So where is the actual harm in what Google and Mastercard are doing?

    That said, I agree entirely with Chris Taylor above, and have wondered about this for a long time. Why do we drag peoples reputations through the mud when they are innocent until (or unless) proven guilty? Mugshots, charge sheets, and even trials should obfuscate identities unless there is an actual conviction. Anything else is just a witch-hunt.

    Andi Mann
    CA Technologies.

  9. Mr. Ingram: A “private corporation” is one that is not listed on a public stock exchange, you might notice that shares of Google are publicly traded on NASDAQ.

  10. I’ve had to deal with these companies personally, and it is a nightmare. I had my record expunged by my state Attorney General, and even with the proper documentation and proof, some of these companies charge as much as $600 to unpublish it. With hundreds of these companies, does it sound like I’ll ever be able to benefit from having a technically clean record if my name and face is plastered all over these companies’ sites? Not likely.

    Check where some of these businesses are located. Many are using US public records, but basing their companies in places like Belize where they cannot be brought to court for providing what they know is false information. To operate a background check service, one must be licensed to ensure proper handling of documents, yet these people knowingly keep false information on their sites to prey off fear.

    This has nothing to do with what Google makes available. There is already plenty of stuff that they don’t provide because it is illegal (and rightfully so), and this should be no exception. If someone wants a background check, they should do it the proper way–via a consumer reporting agency or their local law enforcement agency. Even those records have to be updated manually, but at least none of them charge to have the wrong information removed.

    Perhaps it isn’t technically blackmail or extortion, but libel, slander, perjury, and fraud fit the bill too.

  11. 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.

  12. Jonathan Hochman

    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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. Guest123

    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.

  16. Tearfang

    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.

  17. So wait, Google can’t run its business the way they want? They’re not a public trust Matt, but a private company that, if it doesn’t like mugshot websites, doesn’t have to give them equal weight if they don’t want. Start your own search engine if you don’t like it.

  18. H. Murchison

    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.

  19. 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?

  20. 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.

    • Valentine North

      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.