Opinion: Why Google Should Crack Down Harder On The Mugshot Extortion Racket

Update: The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center now says it’s gotten hundreds of reports of this problem, and is seeking complaints  from people who have been affected. 

Recently a friend contacted me because his daughter was in tears about her mugshot photo being posted on the Internet. She was arrested a few years ago, the matter was settled, and the arrest record was expunged. Nevertheless, her mugshot was prominently displayed on several sites whenever anybody Googled her name.

Unbeknownst to him, trying to get that mugshot down took him into the Mugshot Zone, a murky world where sites are posting the shots in hopes of getting paid to remove them — and Google provides the traffic that helps them along the way.

Mugshots For Profit

When somebody gets arrested, the police take a booking photograph, commonly known as a mugshot. This photo isn’t proof of guilt; it is standard police procedure during the booking process and only means that one officer felt there were grounds to make an arrest.

In many states, these photos are public record and published on the website of the local police department. Posting them online is part of transparent government and is a generally accepted practice that balances the shame of the person who has been arrested with the community’s “right to know,” not to mention providing witnesses or other victims the opportunity to come forward.

mugshot-icon

Image via Shutterstock, used under license.

This reasonable balance has been disrupted by what feels like a growing extortion racket powered by search results. Mugshot sites scrape content from police sites, search optimize, and monetize.

Some mugshots sites brazenly offer to remove listings upon payment of an “administrative”  fee of $79 to over $250 per site. Others have cut deals with mugshot removal services to collect a share of the mugshot removal fee. One un-publishing service charges $399 to $1479 according to its pricelist.

My friend’s experience was that as soon as he paid to remove the mugshot from one site, like the hydra’s head, it popped up on several other sites.

The Google Connection

How does Google fit into all of this? Google conveniently provided a one stop shop that had everything the mugshot entrepreneur needs to monetize his scraper sites.

mugshots online   Google Search

Google’s facilities included a fresh stream of victims via search results and paid advertising, credit card processing via Google Checkout and revenue from AdSense. As Wired wrote about the mugshot business in 2011:

Wiggen said he wasn’t setting out to shame or embarrass anyone: From his point of view, he’s getting free content, then monetizing it with Google AdSense banners hawking defense lawyers and bail bondsmen. But the end result is that mug shots that were once hidden behind police CGI search scripts now display in Google searches, often prominently.

In 2012 it appears that Google quietly expelled a bunch of mugshot sites from AdSense. Much of that AdSense revenue came from ads for those mugshot removal services that are in bed with the mugshot publishers.

Headaches For The Police

I recently had lunch with the chief of police in a neighboring town and asked him what he thought about online mugshots. He told me that his department publishes mugshots, but removes them once each case is adjudicated. That seems perfectly fair. However, nothing requires third parties who have copied mugshots to remove them when the case is resolved.

The Chief mentioned that he’s going to court next week because the Department was sued by a local Realtor after her mugshot displaced her own website at the top of the search results. He seemed to feel sorry for her. The police didn’t want to destroy this lady’s business by arresting her, but that may be the result.

I asked the chief whether he thought these sites were engaging in extortion. He agreed that they were, and added that the lady shouldn’t be suing the police, she should be suing Google, because they’re the ones who have created this problem.

Ways Google Could Take Action

The first amendment protects the rights of publishers to report information obtained from legitimate sources, such as police websites that host mugshots. However, when publishers ask for money, either directly, or indirectly, in exchange for removing embarrassing material, that’s extortion in our view. If the law doesn’t consider this activity to be extortion, the law needs to be fixed. And even if the law can’t be fixed, Google can create its own policies that would help.

Mugshots could easily be reigned in under existing policies regarding duplicate content, thin content sites, and scraper sites. Google (and Bing) claim not to want search results that include multiple copies of the same thing, or content scraped from other sites. Yet, they return multiple copies of the same mugshot image, and multiple search listings for mugshot sites that present the same information that’s been scraped from police department sites.

Google could also consider whether mugshot removal companies simply aren’t a service worth listing, especially given that some claim to have proprietary technology, a trade secret, that lets them remove mugshots from Google. In reality, they just charge a takedown fee to the mugshot hosting site. Are those sites Google really thinks are worth listing?

Waiting for Congress or state legislatures to modernize the law could take years. Google, Bing and other search engines could help immediately by adding a statement to their terms of service:

If you participate in the business of publishing embarrassing, derogatory, or private material about people or companies and then gathering fees, either directly or indirectly, to hide that material, we want nothing to do with you.  Your website will not be listed in our search engine.  You will not be eligible to participate in our advertising programs.  You will not be allowed to collect money through our wallet.  Our search results are not a platform for online extortion, nor for invasion of privacy.

Search engine executives, you ought to finish off this mug shot business. It’s wrong for you to continue ignoring the harm your search engine inflicts on innocent or basically good people who get arrested.

Note:  This article was co-authored by Jonah Stein of It’s the ROI.

Editor’s Note: When asked to comment on this story, a Google spokesperson provided the following statement:

“We share the author’s general concerns with the business model of these sites. We have AdWords and AdSense policies on user safety and sensitive content and regularly take action against sites that violate those policies, as the author notes.
 
Google’s search results are a reflection of the content that’s available on the web. With very narrow exceptions, we take down as little as possible from search and have resources available for both users and webmasters to stay informed about content removal policies.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Other | Features: Opinion | Google: Web Search

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About The Author: has two degrees in computer science from Yale University and is a founder of Hochman Consultants, an internet marketing company, and CodeGuard, a computer security service.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • readitt

    Not all sites are created equal so I won’t single one or the other. Mugshots may or may not be embarrassing but they are still factual which means nothing else than describing factual events in time. Removal companies were created by demand, not by extortion. One website is fully dedicated to this new category and spent an extensive time educating the misinformed public about it, you should spend time reading a little (Unpublish.com)

    You need to realize the chain of events here. People are asking for the services, and are not being threatened, not even approached. Is it a surprise that people want to hide their negative past? They feel entitled but they really are not, not in the US anyways. Do a Google search for “remove my name” and you’ll find many other sites that publish legitimate information and people still want it to be removed, still feel entitled.

    Do you think and and all types of removal requests should be provided for free, or not at all? How does that serve the person who requests the service if the answer always is NO. Would you feel more comfortable if they had a dispute resolution arbitration process such as RipoffReport that charges thousands per case?

    Here’s what I’m getting to. When someone wants something from you, something that you legitimately published, then a fair trade may occur. It’s called commerce.

    Just FYI, further reading on the legal aspect:

    http://www.avvo.com/legal-answers/choosing-forum-for-invasion-of-privacy-lawsuit–fe-597021.html

    “So you have a paralegal certificate and you think you have a valid claim for invasion of privacy against persons who published your mugshot. You obviously need more legal training. There is this pesky constitutional provision called the First Amendment. Mug Shots or persons who were arrested and/or convicted are public documents. If you were arrested and/or convicted, and if your mug shot is publicly available, this is a public record that records an actual and truthful fact–that you were either arrested or convicted. If someone published a list of persons who had been arrested for DUI, as long as the list is accurate, no one could possibly complain about the fact that his name appears on this list. The same is true for lists and photographs of registered sex offenders. The same is true for mug shots. Do they have the potential for harming your reputation. You bet!! Do you have a claim based on this harm—no way. Is it illegal for companies to accept fees in exchange for removing your photo from its published collection of mug-shots? Clearly not.

    Here is your problem—-a mug shot was taken of you. It is available from sources on line. You do not own the copyright in the mug-shot—the copyright is owned by whoever took the photograph and/or the governmental authority who paid him. Thus, you have no legal right to limit its use and distribution. It is a true picture that reflects an unfortunate but real event that occurred in your life. Guess what–you have no claim for invasion of privacy—you have no right to keep private your arrest and conviction history—including mug shots.”

  • http://twitter.com/Jehochman Jonathan Hochman

    How much money are you making from your scam? Are the yachts and mansions worth it for all the lives you ruin?

    A person is innocent until found guilty in a court of law. You may not trash their reputation just because they got arrested. Once the case is resolved with the arrest expunged, a decision not to prosecute, or a finding of innocent, you need to remove your mugshots FREE OF CHARGE.

    Otherwise you are engaging in defamation. If you ask money to remove mugshots, you are engaging in extortion, plain and simple.

    I hope an increasing number of ad networks and payment clearing providers decide to cut off business with you and your ilk.

  • readitt

    You use this space to spread misinformation, does it make you feel good about yourself? It’s what many do and what causes issues, but it isn’t true.

    Let’s start. Yes, a person is innocent until proven guilty. Great. Now who said a person is not? You don’t get points for stating the obvious. In actuality, all these sites have disclaimers stating so. Releasing mugshots is more than just guilt or arrests, it’s also about keeping the government in check.

    About defamation, since you seem not to understand what it is or what it isn’t, let’s clear something up. The truth is always a defense to defamation claims. Stating public information isn’t trashing one’s reputation and certainly isn’t defamation.

    About publicity rights and other forms of rights: Again you show complete lack of understanding of legal concepts. It’s called public records and you have no rights in it whatsoever. The county or state do and they released it to inform the public. It’s what these sites do. Crime publication isn’t new, it’s just in a new format. It has never been liked by arrestees. What’s new?

    And your expectation of free service for something that is legitimately published and owned by the publisher or others who own the data, that just makes no sense. These sites don’t solicit the business from individuals, it’s the other way around. Don’t want the service? Don’t buy.

  • readitt

    “How much money are you making from your scam? Are the yachts and mansions worth it for all the lives you ruin?”

    Lots of assumptions. First you assume I make money, I may or may not. I may have other reasons why I participate in this discussion, it’s really irrelevant. Second, you call it a scam but where’s the scam? People buy what they want to buy and get what they’re paying for. That’s not a scam, that’s fair trade. Do you have any sort of proof that people buy and don’t get what they pay for? I’d love to see it.

    I’ve been following the subject for a while, I see people making up stuff, like you do, and then referring one another, or others who purposely spread false information. Can you think of a reason why they would? I can think of few. In a court of law none of that would work. Here’s one nasty conspiracy theory that’s making the rounds. Someone pays to remove and it pops up elsewhere. As far as I can tell it’s not happening. It could, but I’ve never seen any proof of it.

  • readitt

    You state all these rights people have. Why don’t you take your case to court? You will only then find out how wrong you are. You obviously have no clue about the legal concepts involved here. Let me know when the court date is, I’ll bring the popcorn.

  • http://twitter.com/Jehochman Jonathan Hochman

    Dude, you go all over the Internet posting about this topic and nothing else. Come on, I wasn’t born yesterday.

  • http://twitter.com/Jehochman Jonathan Hochman

    What I’m suggesting is that search engines shouldn’t facilitate extortion, a crime.

  • readitt

    And once again, there’s no extortion here, just misinformation spread by you and your peers, Go to court if you think there’s extortion.

  • readitt

    You’re so smart. I do have my reasons for participating. So? You still spread misinformation. How about that?

  • bill jones

    I understand your point..however…I don’t believe what they do doesn’t even comes close to extortion. As as removing content…try and get content removed from the NY Times…not going to happen…As one of those “good people” who happened to get arrested…I was actually relieved when I found out I could remove..well shall I say…the less than flattering image and information about myself.

  • http://twitter.com/davematson dave matson

    It is pure extortion. These sites only exist to generate revenue from removal requests. That is the business model. They serve no public function to inform. They will remove information whether you are guilty or not, as long as you can pay.

  • http://www.seoskeptic.com/ Aaron Bradley

    The root problem here is US law. And won’t be “fixed” by broadening (or “clarifying”) the legal definition of extortion to include sites with take-down fees, which the search engines and other publishers will be compelled to police or find themselves in contravention of the law.

    Are “innocent or basically good people” getting hurt? Yes, first and foremost by a legal system that allows police – not the judiciary – to post pictures and accompanying personal information about people that have not been convicted of any crime. This is, for example, not permissible in either Canada or the United Kingdom (in the UK, in fact, there has been a backlash against a broadening of the Police National Database to include a mugshots database to which only law enforcement officials have access). In both these jurisdictions public release of the mugshots is tightly controlled not by an ephemeral and non-judicious “right to know,” but when only when a real reason can be provided by the police for doing so, such as the existence of a warrant.

    Really, this is “a generally accepted practice” in the United States? If “innocent … people” are getting hurt by this, then it is because this practice robs them of the presumption of innocence. (The ellipsis there is because that this may or not harm “basically good people” is basically irrelevant; “good people” must still bear the shame or honour of breaking the law, and “bad people” worthy of shame and ridicule might never incur so much as parking ticket. Who makes the determination of who’s
    “good” and who’s “bad”?)

    Once a arrestee’s name and photograph has been released into the public domain there it remains. It is not the job of publishers to ensure that they keep information made public by law enforcement agencies out of the public eye – it wasn’t Google or, say, the New York Times that published this information in the first place.

    An law along the lines you propose (or clarification or expansion of the extortion law you propose – I don’t know what you considering “fixing” the law to entail) wouldn’t stop “innocent and basically good people” from being harmed. Yes, if effective and enforceable and enforced (many “ifs”) it would curtail sites that offer to take down mugshots for money. It wouldn’t prevent mugshot sites that didn’t have a take down mechanism available from monetizing this existing public domain information (even if AdSense wholly withdrew from such sites, there are other ways of monetizing besides AdSense). And it wouldn’t prevent someone with a personal vendetta, business rivalry or some other reason to attack a person from creating a whole website built around the target’s mugshot, nor would it prevent Google from ranking that mugshot at the top of image search for queries for that person’s name.

    Do I think such things are commendable or ethical? Not at all. Again, this whole morass wouldn’t exist without the practice of allowing police departments to release arrest photo – a practice I find neither commendable nor ethical. Laws targeting publishers’ use of public domain materials would be very much a case of treating the symptom rather than the disease.

  • Blake
  • http://www.facebook.com/cre8pc Kim Kopp Krause Berg

    So glad you wrote about this. And what a shame that so many people fight for the right of so called “public” information to be put out there when only one tiny part of the actual incident is available like a head shot. In today’s society, a head shot automatically means guilty and when left on the Internet with no full set of facts makes getting a job next to impossible for these poor people or dating or keeping their lives private. Google is well aware of the complaints against Mugshots and ignores them. It’s all well and good to fight for so called “freedom” and “the right to public data” until it’s your face on there for something you are not guilty of, or charges were dropped, etc. Mugshots does not remove the head shots without demanding about $300.

  • Albert Willer

    Google conveniently lost, dis-acknowledged, trashed, my “duplicate content” argument since they published this DMCA “remedy”. I’m only surprised that my request did not also appear in chillingeffects (yet?), to further perpetuate that which has no eight year old “thrown out” merit for existing at all.

    I’m hoping to legally change my name to Larry Page to spout off all sorts of ignorant rubish that google can continue to publish until it grabs a brain.

    AW

  • http://twitter.com/Jehochman Jonathan Hochman

    I agree it is a slippery slope. The bright red line is when a site charges to unpublish. That’s unethical or illegal.

  • Bordeos2000
  • Blake

    Like in the SEO world there are bad apples no doubt, but some really just want to build comprehensive public records databases and they are at no fault they get those requests from the public. As it’s their content, they have the right to choose their own dispute resolution proceedings. It’s not for you or me to dictate.

  • http://twitter.com/Jehochman Jonathan Hochman

    It is our concern when websites engage in cyber-extortion. This is not a public service at all. Blake, I see that you have been pretty active across the Internet in defense of the mugshot sites, as well as a site called PotentialProstitutes,com. For the sake of transparency, what is your financial interest (if any) in these businesses?

  • Blake

    Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. Being in the business of tricking search engines I can see how paid removals aren’t good for you. Why pay a SEO trickster like you when you can remove from the source?

  • http://twitter.com/Jehochman Jonathan Hochman

    If somebody wanted to profit from this situation would they (a) write an opinion letter to chase away the goose that lays the golden eggs, or (b) charge clients high fees to “fix” their reputations?

  • http://blog.clayburngriffin.com/ Clayburn Griffin

    They would also need to crack down on Yelp and Ripoff reports and the like too.

  • http://twitter.com/Jehochman Jonathan Hochman

    I think Yelp and ROR may involve different issues. I’m not aware of Yelp charging money to remove negative reviews, and ROR doesn’t have a big button on the complaint page that says “Pay us hush money to remove this complaint”.

  • http://www.seoskeptic.com/ Aaron Bradley

    You must surely know that the consequence of search engine algorithms that deal with “thin … duplicate and scraped content” is not the removal of all sites. They may end up dampening the rankings of some sites, and not fully indexing pages that are duplicates, but ultimately some sites remain, and still possess ranking power, in the index.

    The only way it makes sense to speak of a “duplicate” is if there’s an original. From a logic perspective these sites can’t all be copies of one another, as one site ultimately copy from one another. Furthermore that a specific resource – a site or a page – contains the same information as another site or page doesn’t make it a copy, and so doesn’t get it pushed from the index. Direct ecommerce provides endless examples of this: a particular product will end on on multiple sites – same photo, same product name, same manufacturer’s description. This does not end up in these materially duplicate product pages from being indexed.

    So a “tuning” of these algorithms will do exactly nothing to purge mugshot sites from the web. Fewer of them might appear in the index, but some – on which other “copies” are based ultimately will.

    I don’t necessarily agree with the tactic, but “a few of these mugshot site owners are thrown in jail” that would indeed put an end to this – because then their activities will have been determined in a court of law to be illegal, and search engines would put themselves at risk by continuing to index illegal material.

    But as long as these sites remain legal there’s no algorithmic tweaking one can perform that will “get rid of them.”

  • http://www.seoskeptic.com/ Aaron Bradley

    So if a site lists mugshots without allowing people to pay for their mugshots to be removed, they should be allowed (legally) to exist?

  • http://twitter.com/SFSEM SFSEM

    Let’s start with actually using your real name. It’s pretty funny to see all the people defending this immoral exploitation of other people’s names hiding behind sock puppet aliases.

    Jonah Stein, ItsTheROI.

    ps. SEO professionals don’t trick search engines into ranking content, they trick companies into creating content user want and trick developers into not shooting themselves in the foot thousands of different ways.

  • http://twitter.com/SFSEM SFSEM

    Sex Offender have been CONVICTED and states have passed explicit laws creating sex offender registries because they decided that the public need to know out weighs the rights to privacy. It is an amazing twist to try to use these relatively rare instances to justify a “valuable public service” that seeks to shame anyone who has ever been arrested.

    Jonah Stein, ItsTheROI

  • http://twitter.com/SFSEM SFSEM

    SEO’s are not in the business of tricking search engines, at least not the ones who hope to stay in business and help their clients prosper. And for the record, Jonathan runs a PPC and web development agency.

  • http://blog.clayburngriffin.com/ Clayburn Griffin

    Yelp charges money through their ads service, giving the implication to business owners that the filter will work more in their favor. This is substantiated by claims of success by business owners who admit that their positive reviews were filtered less once they started using Yelp Ads. Also, Rip Off Report does charge money to “review” the claim and that can result it in being flagged as frivolous or some such wording.

  • http://twitter.com/Jehochman Jonathan Hochman

    The Yelp situation is kind of squishy. Those are theories, not proven, in my opinion. ROR charging to review claims is close to the line or over the line. I think it is more important to establish a general criteria “no paid unpublishing” than to worry about specific sites. The sites will come and go.

  • http://twitter.com/Jehochman Jonathan Hochman

    Maybe, maybe not. What I know is that charging to remove mugshots is egregious, something that needs to be discouraged very, very strongly.

  • http://twitter.com/Jehochman Jonathan Hochman

    Google goes after paid link schemes that pollute search results. I think they can also go after pain unpublishing schemes that seek to pollute search results.

  • http://twitter.com/SFSEM SFSEM

    The fact that you cannot get content removed from the NY Times for money actually supports that these sites are extorting innocent victims. Of course, when you pay to remove a Mugshot they immediately appear on dozens of other sites…

  • http://twitter.com/SFSEM SFSEM

    Actually, the Potential Prostitutes site may be the worst offender yet! If someone is a pro, they would be happy for another online advertising channel.

    Only the innocent would be upset by this site.

  • bill jones

    The point is… and it was in direct response to the authors comment….would you prefer not to able to remove your or your loved ones mugshot…say that option didn’t exist…what then..rewrite the First Amendment…how loud would you be screaming then…are you on any websites SFSEM…

  • bill jones

    The police had probable cause to believe a law had been broken…they just don’t go around making random arrests…rare instances…clueless… as was your conspiracy theory

  • http://www.seoskeptic.com/ Aaron Bradley

    They go after paid link schemes because they’re an attempt to game the search results. Its perfectly possible to have a mugshot site that doesn’t attempt to do so. Google’s definition of “pollution” is not based on morality. If I search for “John Doe mugshot” and I get a page that displays a picture of John Doe’s mugshot that’s an A+ search result.

  • http://twitter.com/SFSEM SFSEM

    If you search contains mugshots, that’s fine but what if you just search for “John Doe”, or maybe something less common and got hit with image results and 4-6 different mugshot companies?

    Meanwhile, the sad fact is that if Google was monetizing these queries with other content they would have demolished the publishers with on quality filter or another; certainly Panda took out plenty of sites who were essentially doing the same type of information mining.

  • http://twitter.com/SFSEM SFSEM

    Applying quality guidelines is not censorship. Also, the first amendment is irrelevant here because Google is a private company. They frequently remind us that they have the right to include or exclude whoever they want for whatever reason.

  • http://twitter.com/Jehochman Jonathan Hochman

    So what. Does that give you the right to target people who’ve been arrested for extortion? I don’t think so.

  • David Veldt

    Thank you for this. I worked hard on reputation management; building my relevant profiles to dominate the search results for my name. It was all undone in one night by someone with the same name as me getting arrested a while back. Now, right in the middle of universal search results for my name, are 3 image results of his mugshot.

    Did I mention he lives in the same town as me and looks similar to me?

    It is terrible for the people in the mugshots, but also has collateral damage, especially for people who make their living online.

  • David Veldt

    And what about people with the same name as someone who got arrested? What if they life in the same city and look similar to that person? This affects more than just the person IN the mugshot.

    I would respond to some of your points, but you have none. You’re clearly just a bad person.

  • http://www.v2interactive.net/ Josh

    Who cares? If you’re brave enough for the crime, what makes you think it will not follow you both in ‘real life’ and digitally. Don’t want a mugshot? Don’t go to jail.

  • http://www.v2interactive.net/ Josh

    Guilty as charged!

  • http://twitter.com/Jehochman Jonathan Hochman

    Josh, I guess you didn’t read the article. Mugshots are online for people who are found innocent, have charges dropped, or are arrested totally in error.

  • http://twitter.com/Jehochman Jonathan Hochman

    Wow! Can you add your middle name to your site and branding?

  • Adreana Langston

    Wait, do these sites serve ads to web visitors? If so, they are using the mug shots to drive commercial traffic. People do have a right to sue others who are using their image for commercial purposes without their permission and without compensating them. This is how people have successfully gone after “revenge porn” websites in which nude pictures they gave away willingly were then posted online by their ex lovers.

  • Adreana Langston

    What you wrote is not true. I took pictures AT A PARADE. I attempted to upload the photos to a stock photography website. The reason? I did not have model release forms for the people in the images. The people were on a public street in broad daylight at an event where they knew there would be cameras. A lot of the people in the pics were actually parading down the street. It did not matter that I was the photographer. If I planned on using these people’s images for a commercial purpose then I had to get a model release form from them. These websites are using these mugshots for a commercial purpose, whether it be through their connection to the removal companies or simply to curious web visitors to their sites where they serve advertisements.

    While the photo itself is public, the person IN the photo STILL maintains the right to have say-so over the use of his/her image for commercial purposes. THAT is commerce. If you are not a public figure and it can not be argued that the very act of you being arrested is “newsworthy”, you can sue people who are making money off your image without your permission.

  • David Veldt

    Could, but don’t want to and certainly shouldn’t have to. Office Space comes to mind; Michael Bolton: “No way! Why should I change? He’s the one who sucks.”

    Fortunately, the actual web pages for these sites are pushed down in universal results, its those pesky image results that are getting pulled in. I’ll have to do some SEO on my own images to push those down a bit as well.

  • Skjoldur

    Build comprehensive government records databases? Why? The records are already available to the public. Makes no sense. If this is some kind of bold and noble Assange/Wikileaks thing, it’s misplaced. You aren’t busting out corruption or secret deals made in smoke-filled back rooms. You’re sticking it to the little guy. You aren’t the Robin Hood character; you’re the Sheriff bending everyone over.

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