The ostensible point of sites like Mugshots, BustedMugshots and JustMugshots is to give the public a quick way to glean the unsavory history of a neighbor, a potential date or anyone else. That sounds civic-minded, until you consider one way most of these sites make money: by charging a fee to remove the image. That fee can be anywhere from $30 to $400, or even higher. Pay up, in other words, and the picture is deleted, at least from the site that was paid.
To millions of Americans now captured on one or more of these sites, this sounds like extortion. Mug shots are merely artifacts of an arrest, not proof of a conviction, and many people whose images are now on display were never found guilty, or the charges against them were dropped. But these pictures can cause serious reputational damage.
It was only a matter of time before the Internet started to monetize humiliation. In this case, the time was early 2011, when mug-shot Web sites started popping up to turn the most embarrassing photograph of anyone’s life into cash. The sites are perfectly legal, and they get financial oxygen the same way as other online businesses — through credit card companies and PayPal. Some states, though, are looking for ways to curb them. The governor of Oregon signed a bill this summer that gives such sites 30 days to take down the image, free of charge, of anyone who can prove that he or she was exonerated or whose record has been expunged. Georgia passed a similar law in May. Utah prohibits county sheriffs from giving out booking photographs to a site that will charge to delete them.
But as legislators draft laws, they are finding plenty of resistance, much of it from journalists who assert that public records should be just that: public. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argues that any restriction on booking photographs raises First Amendment issues and impinges on editors’ right to determine what is newsworthy. That right was recently exercised by newspapers and Web sites around the world when the public got its first look at Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard gunman, through a booking photograph from a 2010 arrest.
MUG shots have been online for years, but they appear to have become the basis for businesses in 2010. Today there are more than 80 mug-shot sites. They Hoover up most of their images from sheriffs’ Web sites, where rules and policies about whose mug shot is posted and for how long can vary, from state to state and from county to county.
The sites are designed for easy ogling. Some feature a running scroll of the famous (Lindsay Lohan), the infamous (James E. Holmes, accused in the Aurora, Colo., mass shooting) and the obscure but colorful (a man with an American flag painted on his face and bald head).
JustMugshots began in 2012 and now has five employees, two of whom spend all their time dredging up images from 300 sources. The site has nearly 16.8 million such photos. JustMugshots has a “courtesy removal service,” allowing people who have been exonerated, or never charged, or even those who can demonstrate that they have turned around their lives, to get their image taken down free.
The opposite case — a person who is guilty of a terrible crime and has the money to remove his or her face from the Web site — presents another sort of quandary. If the point of JustMugshots is to inform the public, why should the rich and convicted get a pass?
JUSTMUGSHOTS is one of several sites named in a class-action lawsuit filed last year by Scott A. Ciolek, a lawyer in Toledo, Ohio. Mr. Ciolek argues that the sites violate Ohio’s right-of-publicity statute, which gives state residents some control over the commercial use of their name and likeness. He also says the sites violate the state’s extortion law.
Lance C. Winchester, a lawyer in Austin who represents BustedMugshots and MugshotsOnline, both named in the lawsuit, says Mr. Ciolek’s lawsuit is a stinker because the United States Supreme Court has ruled time and again that mug shots are public records.
Like JustMugshots, the Web sites operated by Mr. Winchester’s clients also say they will take down an image, at no charge, for qualified supplicants. But many who qualify for this pass to get off the site free don’t use it, largely because they don’t believe that the offer is real.
The trick is balancing the desire to guard individual reputations with the news media’s right to publish. Journalists put booking photographs in the same category as records of house sales, school safety records and restaurant health inspections — public information that they would like complete latitude to publish, even if the motives of some publishers appear loathsome.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press favors unfettered access to the images, no matter how obscure the arrestee and no matter the ultimate disposition of the case. Even laws that force sites to delete images of the exonerated, the committee maintains, are a step in the wrong direction.
People eager to vanish from mug-shot sites can try a mug-shot removal service, a mini-industry that has sprung up in the last two years and is nearly as opaque as the one it is intended to counter. Removal services aren’t cheap — RemoveMyMug.com charges $899 for its “multiple mug shot package” — and owners of large reputation-management companies, which work with people trying to burnish their online image, contend that they are a waste of money.
AS painful as they are for arrestees, mug shots seem to attract big online crowds. Google’s results are supposed to reflect both relevance and popularity, and mug-shot sites appear to rank exceptionally well without resorting to trickery. However, they were beloved by Google’s algorithm in part because viewers who open them tend to stick around.
What’s curious is that Google doesn’t penalize these sites for obtaining their images and text from other places, a sin in the company’s guidelines. The idea is that Web sites should be rewarded for coming up with original material and receive demerits for copying. If it acted, Google could do what no legislator could — demote mug-shot sites and thus reduce, if not eliminate, their power to stigmatize.
Asked two weeks ago about its policies on mug-shot sites, officials at MasterCard spent a few days examining the issue, and came back with an answer. “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.
PayPal came back with a similar response after being contacted for this article. “When mug-shot removal services were brought to our attention and we made a careful review,” said John Pluhowski, a spokesman for PayPal, “we decided to discontinue support for mug-shot removal payments.”
American Express and Discover were contacted on Monday and, two days later, both companies said they were severing relationships with mug-shot sites. A representative of Visa wrote to say it was asking merchant banks to investigate business practices of the sites “to ensure they are both legal and in compliance with Visa operating regulations.”
So, what do YOU think about mug shot web sites and the removal services? Should they be put out of business? Should they be protected by FREEDOM OF SPEECH Constitutional rights? Let me know what you think.
Thanks to DAVID SEGAL and the New York Times, and
Thanks for “listening”