Google's crackdown on mugshot sites

In the long list of clever business models enabled by the Internet, the advent of so-called “mug shot” sites is both a sketchy example and a booming cottage industry.

Now Google is taking steps to crack down on the sites, which collect, catalog and display booking photographs from local jails around the country, which are usually made available as public records by local police and sheriff’s departments.  The move was reported over the weekend in a fascinating article by the New York Times, although the issue has been highlighted before on Search Engine Land and other tech blogs.

While the sites portray themselves as offering a public service, according to the Times, many of them make money by charging a hefty fee to individuals who don’t want their photos – and related evidence of their arrest – showing up prominently when someone does an Internet search for their name.

That practice is tantamount to extortion, say critics, who note that police routinely take mug shots whenever someone is arrested . . . and therefore the photo galleries include many people who were released without being charged, let alone being convicted of any crime.

But legislative attempts to regulate the sites have run into First Amendment objections from journalism organizations, open-government advocates and others who don’t want to see the government start down that slippery slope of restricting the use of public information.

Google, meanwhile, has been under pressure from those who’d like the Internet search engine to stop showing links to the sites. Google doesn’t like to get drawn into the troublesome role of censoring or passing judgment on content.  But it does have an elaborate method of evaluating sites for “relevance” to determine how prominently they are displayed in a list of results.

When first contacted by the Times, a Google spokesman reportedly said there wasn’t much the company could do about the mug shot sites.  The Times said the spokesman corrected himself two days later, however, and said he hadn’t initially known that the company was in fact already working on changing its algorithm to address the issue.

Google didn’t offer any details about the change or the reasons, although critics have previously argued that the sites should get a lower ranking in search results under a Google formula that penalizes sites which simply repackage content from other sources.  (The new Google formula does appear to push the sites much lower in search results.)  In a post on Twitter, Google search executive Matt Cutts said the company had been working on the problem since it was first highlighted by security blogger Jonathan Hochman several months ago.

Meanwhile, the Times said it also got a response from several credit card companies and PayPal, which process payments to the mug shot companies from people trying to get their photos taken down.  Here’s how the Times described the response from MasterCard:

“We looked at the activity and found it repugnant,” said Noah Hanft, general counsel with the company. 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.

The Times said PayPal and other payment processors responded similarly.

(Mug shot of Elvis Presley from Wikipedia)



Brandon Bailey Brandon Bailey (350 Posts)

Brandon Bailey covers Google, Facebook and Yahoo for the San Jose Mercury News, reporting on the business and culture of the Internet.