First they came for the mugshot websites, but I said nothing…

As described in a New York Times story on the weekend — one that for some reason chose to save this information until the end — Google (s goog) has tweaked its search algorithm and downgraded the Page Rank of so-called “mugshot” websites, which post police snapshots of random people and in some cases charge to have them removed. MasterCard has also taken steps to cut such sites off from using its online payment systems.

Everyone seems pretty happy about this turn of events so far (except the mugshot site operators, of course), but I confess that I find the whole thing a little disturbing.

Obviously, Google tweaks its algorithms all the time to boost or lower the ranking of different types of content. And both it and MasterCard are private corporations that can do whatever they wish — within reason — when it comes to their business. We may even agree that mugshot sites are reprehensible and deserve to die. But what happens when Google and/or MasterCard decide to target other sites? What if they choose to cut off WikiLeaks, for example, as MasterCard did in 2010?

Emily Bell tweet

Is there a right to be forgotten?

The rise of dedicated mugshot sites is a relatively recent phenomenon. According to the Times, one of the first was started in 2010 by a former credit-card-fraud artist who put together a website based on Florida arrest photos, and now there are close to 100 of them — all of which aggregate booking photos from public websites run by state and regional police departments. Many charge a fee to have photos removed, and/or use Google ads to monetize their traffic. To most, this seems like a thinly-veiled exercise in extortion.

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.

Lindsay 3x2

The problem with mugshot sites is arguably just a small piece of a much larger problem, which is the fact that information about you — including things you did or said or posted online in a fit of anger, youthful indiscretion, etc. — lasts forever. This is why the European community has been debating a “right to be forgotten,” which could require sites like Google to remove information under certain circumstances. But as a number of people have pointed out, such laws would have potentially huge implications.

As Hilary Mason, former chief scientist at Bitly, noted in a blog post, mugshot sites take advantage of information that is in a weird kind of public-private gray area: it is theoretically public, and comes from official sources, but in the past it was difficult or even impossible to collect easily — since in many cases it would have required going to dozens or hundreds of physical locations and photocopying documents. Google (ironically) now makes this kind of thing ridiculously easy.

“What the mugshot story demonstrates but never says explicitly is that data is no longer just private or public, but often exists in an in-between state, where the public-ness of the data is a function of how much work is required to find it.”

Google chooses what we see and don’t see

Google HQ

What bothers me about Google and MasterCard’s decisions is that mugshot websites are based on the aggregation of public — and in many cases potentially useful — information. The fact that some (although not all) ask for payment to have photos removed may border on extortion, but the reality is that they aren’t that different from a site like The Smoking Gun, or other services that offer potentially important background information about a whole range of people: politicians, judges, doctors, etc.

As the New York Times story notes, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said downgrading or removing such sites raises some pretty big red flags. “What we have is a situation where people are doing controversial things with public records,” said Mark Caramanica of the RCFP. “But should we shut down the entire database because there are presumably bad actors out there?” As one mugshot provider (whose site charges for removal but also has a “courtesy removal service”) put it:

“No one should have to go to the courthouse to find out if their kid’s baseball coach has been arrested, or if the person they’re going on a date with tonight has been arrested. Our goal is to make that information available online, without having to jump through any hoops.”

Is Google going to somehow differentiate between the good uses of this kind of information and the bad ones? And is MasterCard going to do the same? It seems — to me at least — that there’s a very real risk that this kind of behavior could quickly become a slippery slope, and eventually result in Google and/or other platforms doing what Amazon did when it removed WikiLeaks documents from its S3 cloud servers in 2010 (which the company claims was not the result of any pressure from the U.S. government).

If aggregating public documents for which you may not have a copyright license, or for which you charge money via MasterCard, becomes the sort of thing that Google wants to crack down on or hide from view, then WikiLeaks and other valuable sites could be in trouble. And how will we even know what we aren’t seeing, if these changes happen behind the scenes due to government or legal pressure? The power of proprietary platforms like Google to determine what we perceive about the world has never been greater.

This post was updated to reflect the fact that JustMugshots does charge for some removals, but also has a “courtesy removal service.”

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of New York magazine and Flickr user Affiliate