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