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Mug Shot Website Fallout Raises a Bigger Question

Mugshots of Lindsay Lohan from 2007 through 2013

Photographs by Santa Monica Police Station and Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department via Getty Images

Mugshots of Lindsay Lohan from 2007 through 2013

As described in a New York Times story over the weekend—which for some reason chose to save this information until the end—Google (GOOG) has tweaked its search algorithm and downgraded the PageRank of “mug shot” websites, which post police snapshots of random people and in some cases charge to have them removed. MasterCard (MA) has also taken steps to cut off such sites from using its online payment systems.

So far everyone seems pretty happy about this turn of events (except the mug shot 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 mug shot 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?

Is there a right to be forgotten?

The rise of dedicated mug shot 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 almost 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 for even relatively minor offenses, and they can exist online long after—even if the arrest did not lead to a conviction. This can make the mug shots a source of entertainment when the photo is of someone like Microsoft (MSFT) founder Bill Gates when he was in college, or of a notoriously unstable celebrity such as Lindsay Lohan. But when it’s a young person who finds their employment opportunities curtailed as a result of a teenage lapse in judgment, it suddenly becomes much less amusing.

The problem with mug shot sites is arguably just a small piece of a much larger problem, which is 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 including 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, mug shot sites take advantage of information that’s 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, in many cases requiring photocopying documents in dozens or hundreds of different physical locations. Google (ironically) now makes this kind of thing ridiculously easy.

Google chooses what we see and don’t see.

What bothers me about Google and MasterCard’s decisions is that mug shot sites are based on the aggregation of public—and in many cases potentially useful—information. 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, or other services that offer potentially important background information about a 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,” says Mark Caramanica of the RCFP. “But should we shut down the entire database because there are presumably bad actors out there?”

Is Google going to somehow differentiate between the good and bad uses of this kind of information? Is MasterCard going to do the same? There’s a real risk—to me at least—that this kind of behavior could quickly lead to a slippery slope, eventually resulting in Google and/or other platforms doing what (AMZN) 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 Google wants to crack down on or hide from view, then WikiLeaks and other valuable sites could be in trouble. And if these changes happen behind the scenes because of government or legal pressure, how will we even know what we aren’t seeing? The power of proprietary platforms like Google to determine what we perceive about the world has never been greater.

Ingram is a senior writer with GigaOM, where he covers media in all its forms—social and otherwise—as well as Web culture and related issues.

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