As reported in the NY Times, many sites have sprung up across the Internet that post mugshots online in what could be best described as extortion…they’ll take them down for a fee. What truly makes it extortion is when those websites actively pay to promote individual mugshots until they’re paid not to. Nasty? Maybe. Legal? Absolutely. They’re publishing public records.
But it has serious implications, according to Mathew Ingram of GigaOM:
One problem is that booking photos are posted even for relatively minor offenses, and they can exist online long after — even if the arrest did not lead to a conviction. This can make them a source of entertainment when the photo is of someone like Microsoft founder Bill Gates when he was in college, or of a notoriously unstable celebrity such as Lindsay Lohan — but when it is a young person who finds their employment opportunities curtailed as a result of a teenaged lapse in judgement, it suddenly becomes much less amusing.
We’re suddenly in a world where the right to be forgotten for anything every done or said is not by any means secure.
Google takes the lead
In an interesting move, Google decided to lower the search rankings of mugshot sites in an effort to reduce the problem…a corporation unilaterally deciding what we see. That’s not new, but there’s an important distinction to be made…Google already decides what we see and don’t see through their search algorithm, but that has always been based on relevance. With this decision, Google tosses relevance aside as their criteria. While the move seems to have great intentions, is this really their role and is this the direction they should go? It feels like a very slippery slope for Google or anyone else who makes this call on their own.
Kashmir Hill throws in her opinion on Forbes on the idea of censorship:
Private industry may wind up doing what lawmakers are constitutionally forbidden to do: killing an ugly information practice by both burying it in search results and cutting off its funding sources. If we’re all on board with locking up the mugshot industry, it’s great. But it’s also a kind of scary display of the power of private industry to control speech on the Internet.
Kashmir brings up something very important about censorship. When is it necessary and who decides?
Or is the problem with the concept of public record? When this kind of information was made public by our forefathers, the work required to get it was significant. We can assume they didn’t expect that anyone could grab that data and use it anywhere, anytime. The barrier to information access is so low now that it begs the question, “Is this how transparent we want our governments to be?”
Maybe the real issue is what’s public record. Effortless retrieval changes the game, but should it cause less information to be available? Is that a good thing for transparency? Aren’t there things we should still be able to find with effort but not have posted and used as extortion? Is this a law in the making or can we avoid that messy scenario?
Like many things, there’s a period of adjustment as information we never dreamed would be public makes it to the Web. Unfortunately, as the mug shot extortion victims know and more than a few ex-girlfriends, being caught up in that transition period is painful.
It’s heartening to see that Google, Visa (by refusing extortion transactions) and others are adjusting, but is it enough to leave this in the hands of commercial enterprises? Does it rise the level of creating a law? Does the public have a right to know that someone has been booked into a jail (even before they’re found guilty)? “Do we have an inherent ‘Right to be forgotten‘?” we ask as the public debate on this idea rages in Europe.
These aren’t easy questions to answer and it will be very interesting to see how this plays out as the world gets used finger-tip access to nearly everything imaginable at any time.