‘A picture lasts forever’ is likely not the thought going through a person’s head when he or she is being booked at the clink (well, unless that person is Lindsay Lohan). Yet mugshots have over the last few years taken on an Internet permanence thanks to a host of sites that use liberal public records laws to get their hands on mugshots and make them part of people’s Google footprints. The industry first started getting scrutiny two years ago when Wired highlighted a Florida mugshot site that made its money by publishing slammer shots and running ads alongside them, or worse, charging people to have them taken down.
The practice has only thrived and expanded since then, according to a piece in the New York Times this weekend that looks at the rise of the embarrassment extortion industry and attempts by individuals and lawmakers to curb the practice while not impeding on freedom of information. Legislators in Utah have, for example, forbidden sheriff’s offices from giving mugshots to sites that will charge to take them down. A lawyer in Ohio has filed a class-action lawsuit against some of the sites accusing them of extortion and violating people’s “right of publicity,” a state statute similar to the one that got Facebook sued for using people’s profile pics in ‘Sponsored Stories.’
But rather than a legal fix, New York Times reporter David Segal’s investigation may be the fix. His inquiries to Google, Paypal, Visa, American Express, Discover and others about their role in promoting and monetizing these sites has led to a serious backlash. Google has changed its algorithms to rank these sites lower — under the premise that they run afoul of an unspecified Google guideline. Via the NYTimes:
[Google introduced] that algorithm change sometime on Thursday. The effects were immediate: on Friday, two mug shots of Janese Trimaldi, which had appeared prominently in an image search, were no longer on the first page. For owners of these sites, this is very bad news.
And in a move that resembles the Wikileaks payment blockade, every payment provider contacted by Segal said they had plans to cut off funding to the sites. “We looked at the activity and found it repugnant,” Mastercard general counsel Noah Hanft told Segal.
MasterCard executives contacted the merchant bank that handles all of its largest mug-shot site accounts and urged it to drop them as customers. “They are in the process of terminating them,” Mr. Hanft said.
PayPal came back with a similar response after being contacted for this article.
“When mug-shot removal services were brought to our attention and we made a careful review,” said John Pluhowski, a spokesman for PayPal, “we decided to discontinue support for mug-shot removal payments.”
American Express and Discover were contacted on Monday and, two days later, both companies said they were severing relationships with mug-shot sites.
Segal writes that Visa is also reexamining its payment processing for these sites. One of the mugshot site owners expressed dismay at the drop in site traffic and losing his ability to collect money telling Segal they’re “trying to wrap our heads around this.” Notably, when Wikileaks faced a similar problem, it turned to Bitcoin — a system of finance that isn’t controlled by intermediaries that can pass this kind of judgment.
Private industry may wind up doing what lawmakers are constitutionally forbidden to do: killing an ugly information practice by both burying it in search results and cutting off its funding sources. If we’re all on board with locking up the mugshot industry, it’s great. But it’s also a kind of scary display of the power of private industry to control speech on the Internet.