Google has updated their algorithm to prevent mug shot websites from appearing at the top of their search results, and credit card companies and payment providers are investigating the business practices of websites that publish arrest photos and extort money from individuals desperate to get them removed. While individuals have been anxiously waiting for relief in the form of new law passed to curb this unethical practice, it may be other private businesses that are finally able to eliminate this entire industry.
Mugshot Websites Under Attack
The mug shot website industry came under attack earlier this month after the New York Times published an exposé, which prompted Google to immediately amend its algorithm to push mug shot websites down in their search results. Prior to implementing this new amendment earlier this month, Google had not been punishing these websites, such as Mugshots.com, BustedMugshots.com, and JustMugshots.com, with a reduced ranking despite the fact that these sites get their images and information from third-party sources. Google’s philosophy is that websites should be promoted in the results if they have original content and reduced in rank for copying. Google’s amended algorithm came after the company determined that these mug shot sites do not comply with a certain guideline, though Google has not specified which guideline is being violated. The changes have been effective in getting mug shot sites pushed back off the first page of search results.
Mugshot Extortion Industry
These web sites obtain arrest information and photographs from government web sites, such as the local sheriff’s office or police department. They use that data to create pages that rank very well in search engines, such as Google. These sites charge anywhere from $30 to $400 to remove information concerning a single arrest. Mug shot websites have continued to crop up since 2010, when using online mug shots as a basis for a business model first started. Currently, there are over 80 mug shot sites, each of which charge separately to remove the content. These arrests often did not lead to a conviction or the records have since been expunged by the court, but the websites do not show those details.
Credit Card Companies End Support
Credit card companies are also working to terminate their relationships with the mug shot websites, and PayPal has said it is removing its support for mug shot removal payments. CNNMoney has reported that Visa and MasterCard have asked the “acquiring banks,” the banks used by the websites to process credit card payments, to investigate these companies to determine if they are “conducting commerce illegally.” Discover is also still in the “review process.” At this time, American Express is the only major credit card company that has completely cut ties with the mug shot websites.
States Updating Their Laws To Prevent These Websites
Search engines and payment provider companies will likely have more success in shutting down this business than the law has been able to effectuate up to this point. These sites have been operating legally; however, states have been working to enact laws to control these sites and put a stop to the extortion schemes. Oregon and Georgia have passed laws requiring sites to remove the mug shot within 30 days of anyone who can prove that he or she was exonerated or has had the record expunged. Utah passed a law to stop everything at the source; the law prohibits county sheriffs from distributing booking photographs to any site that will charge to get it removed.
First Amendment Claims
Lawmakers experience resistance, in the form of First Amendment claims, when trying to formulate laws to ban the current practices of mug shot companies. Search engine websites and credit card companies can create a difficult business landscape for these companies to work in and may be able to drive them out of the industry, as individuals wait for the laws to catch up with the current situation.
Destroying The Mugshots Business Model
It is yet to be determined just how much of an impact these changes, implemented by Google and financial companies, have had on the major mug shot websites; however, their business model is dependent on both the high search results to cause embarrassment and then the ability to extract payment from the humiliated individual. If search engines and credit card companies can cut off their ability to do these two things, the victims of this extortion may finally be able to move forward with their lives without the hefty price tag they are currently facing.
To learn more, read our article on important information about criminal records and mugshots.