Mug shot websites become center of controversy

Over the past two decades, the Internet has steadily grown by leaps and bounds. What used to be limited to simple connections and a modern form of communication has evolved to become the foundation of a commercial world.

During the course of its development, the Internet has become the heart of doing business. Many different kinds of business models have emerged, from the mighty Google and Facebook to the small-town local business—all reliant upon the Internet.

While legitimate businesses have entrenched themselves with the ever-growing online environment, many shady and questionable businesses have emerged as well.

Rise of the “mug shot” websites

One business model currently making headlines are “mug shot” websites after a New York Times report highlighted the issue earlier in October 2013.

What these companies do is collect arrest photographs from law enforcement agencies, which are public domain, and then neatly display them for all to see on their websites. These websites have been around for a few years now, some reports estimate their numbers surged around 2011. And many copycat sites continue to follow. There are reportedly over 80 “mug shot” websites in 2013.

Websites ruining reputations

The sites reportedly are ruining reputations. Mug shot websites not only highlight the photos of people convicted, but those arrested as suspect, but then subsequently released or found not guilty. This means the images of numerous people can show up prominently in Google results through the search of a name, even if their arrest record has been either removed or settled by law agencies or courts.

Several people are upset with this practice and say it has had a dramatic impact on their lives. Some are even bringing lawsuits against companies posting arrest photos.

Just imagine how that could potentially impact job applicants, or students looking to get into higher education competing at prominent schools. Or loan applicants. The impact on a person’s reputation can be extensive.

Free enterprise or extortion?

The companies will reportedly take down these not-so-flattering images—for a fee—often a hefty one in some cases. The companies are seemingly portraying themselves as offering a public service (after all wouldn’t you want to know if you were dating a serial killer?) Others say what these sites are doing amounts to extortion.

According to CNN, some sites charge a substantial fee. Payments can range approximately $175 to $400 for minor infractions or even those innocent of a crime.  Other sites charge lower or higher amounts, depending on the company. If numerous websites run a photo, this could run into thousands of dollars if someone wishes for it to be removed.

Then there are those companies that will remove photos for free, if the individual can demonstrate they were not convicted, or committed a serious crime.

Additional conflicts over so-called “mug shot” websites

Mug shot websites advertise they will remove photos for the aforementioned fees and will accept numerous forms of payment, including credit cards and PayPal. Some are pushing for credit card companies to drop these websites as customers.

Many companies reportedly examined the issue and are indeed dropping these sites, no longer allowing payments. However, CNN noted in its report, the money is still flowing through many major credit card companies.

Additionally, some states are passing, or have passed, laws that prevent police or sheriffs from giving out booking photos to websites that charge to remove them. The problem is, this wanders into First Amendment issues, specifically Freedom of the Press. This could get into sticky territory.

Google intervenes

Since Google has captured the bulk of the search engine market, it is not surprising the company has been approached about its algorithm prominently displaying these mug shot websites at the top of results when a name is searched.

According to the New York Times report, Google’s results are designed to return search results that is both relevant and popular. Mug shot sites apparently fit the bill.

“When others search your name, that link to is way more attention-grabbing than your LinkedIn profile,” Doug Pierce, founder of Cogney, a Hong-Kong based search engine optimization company said. “Once they click, they stare in disbelief, and look around a bit, which means they stay on the page, rather than returning immediately to the search results. Google takes that as a sign that the site is relevant, and that boosts it even more.”

Yet, for years, Google has been promoting the concept of “original”. The New York Times also noted boosting mug shot sites goes against this very philosophy.

A valid point. After all, what is so original about copying images from law enforcement and regurgitating personal information of arrestees?

However, many reports, including Search Engine Land, note that the search engine giant has indeed made a tweak on its algorithm to push the results further down the list. This initiative began sometime earlier this year.

So while the mug shot sites may remain, they may have problems operating if cash flow and prominence is impacted by changes. At this time, it is too soon to tell how this situation will evolve. Will the companies, which are legal, go out of business or will they find another method of gaining visibility?