There could be some unflattering pictures of you online that are worse than your embarrassing tagged photos on Facebook — mugshots.
Mugshot databases are third party information distributors that give anyone with an Internet connection the ability to view your arrest photos.
Until recently, if someone were to type a name into a search engine, multiple links to sites displaying his or her mugshot could be found on the first page.
But with removal costs ranging anywhere from $30 to $1,000, it’s a price some aren’t willing to pay.
These for-profit databases have come under scrutiny since a New York Times story published last month. The industry has been called a form of extortion and an illegal use of public information for profitable gain.
In Florida, these sites are not considered to be in violation of any legal statute because the state has the most expansive open-government laws in the country, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The state’s public record law allows for all state, county and municipal records to be open at all times for public inspection.
Still, search engine sites and credit card processing companies have responded in the past month by changing their policies to deter the traffic and financial gain these sites generate.
Sanette Chao, spokeswoman for American Express, said an investigation of these sites led to the decision to sever financial ties.
“When the sites were brought to our attention,” she said, “we conducted a detailed review and canceled as appropriate. We do not disclose details on our merchant accounts — active or closed. What I can share is that American Express maintains the right to terminate any relationship that is harmful to our brand.”
With Google altering its algorithm for searches, and MasterCard, American Express, Discover and PayPal moving away from mugshot sites to process removal fees, the industry has taken a hit.
The decision of the credit card processing sites to terminate service was an “uninformed, moral decision influenced by the press,” said Chase Johnson of UnpublishArrests.com, a company that removes people’s mugshots for a fee.
Johnson said after the media attention and action taken by credit card processing companies, as well as the altered algorithm, various sites were forced to change their business models. It even took some smaller-scale mugshot databases out of business entirely.
“Having access to information based on arrests can never be a bad thing,” Johnson said. “It’s simply out there to inform the public on who has been arrested; for what, when and where. But not having access to that information actually puts people at risk.”
The current action taken by financial processing companies as a response to the media quarry has sparked another discussion — on hypocrisy.
Johnson said he doesn’t seek to undermine the decision of the credit processing companies, but in regards to American Express, he said clients should be able to decide how to spend their money since they are paying customers.
“You have people that pay for a right to use their card and who want a service, and now they’re unable to use the card to do so,” Johnson said. “But you can still use your American Express card to go into an explicit chat room online to watch porn. It doesn’t make sense.”
Another issue Johnson mentioned is that many major media networks have mugshot database sites that generate traffic and financial gain through ad-revenue. But media outlets aren’t experiencing the same type of backlash mugshot databases are receiving.
Art Forgey, spokesman for the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, said his agency is aware of the Gainesville Sun database and has not experienced any issues since the paper is following the law.
“For us the bottom line is that since (mugshots) are a public record, we do not regulate their stripping of the photos and information,” Forgey said.
Johnson added that credit card companies and search engines censoring spending and online viewing is a slippery slope.
“It’s really dangerous to the American way of life…when people start telling you what you can spend your money on and what we can view on the Internet,” he said.
Search engine optimization should be based on keywords, Johnson said, and not what search engine sites believe to be relevant.
“There are two sides to every story, and then there’s the common ground in the middle, Johnson said.
“Just because a profit is being made on our end,” he added, “it doesn’t mean there isn’t a public service being done.”