Google Algorithm Tweak Tries to Squash Mug Shot Websites

If you've ever been arrested, whether or not you are guilty of the charges, your mug shot may be online. And a potential employer or neighbor might find that mug shot right in the search results when they perform a search for your name.

Not to worry though, because Google's algorithm is going to help squash those results. Not because it feels for you, but because many of the sites hosting those images are not playing nice within Google's guidelines.

But some journalists say this type of tampering with results is against the First Amendment. This is the story unraveling around the "mug shot" algorithm.

Mug Shots Free for All

In recent years, websites have been popping up left and right that curate the notorious mug shot from public records and host it on their sites. These websites often have a database of thousands upon thousands of images, ranging from the Average Joe to celebrities like Lindsey Lohan.

lindsay-lohan-mug-shot

The controversy is specifically surrounding the innocence or guilt of these people, in addition to the website's business model.

Mug shots are taken upon entering the jail system, and beyond the initial snapshot, no one viewing the images on these websites can make a judgment about whether or not the person was actually charged.

Add to that the fact that a charge of drunk in public could be right alongside a charge of child molestation, and you could see how it might irk some people to be on equal grounds with others in these mug shot websites.

To compound matters, many but not all of these websites charge a fee to take the images down upon request. Others simply want to see proof of innocence, and take it on a case-by-case basis, according to a story at The New York Times.

For those sites that are charging money, many call this an extortion act.

Google Regulates the Situation

When a New York Times journalist approached Google asking it about its mug shot search results, a Google spokesperson simply said Google was empathetic to those who had to deal with their mug shots being found online, but that "with very narrow exceptions, we take down as little as possible from search."

But within days, that Google spokesperson wrote back to the journalist stating that a Google team had, in fact, been working on an algorithm that would address the issue. Not because The Times journalist jolted them into action, but because many of those sites conflict with Google guidelines in some fashion or another.

The spokesperson said unbeknownst to him, "Our team has been working for the past few months on an improvement to our algorithms to address this overall issue in a consistent way. We hope to have it out in the coming weeks."

The Times reported this algorithm update went live "sometime on Thursday," referring to Thursday of last week. Coincidentally, this was right around the time Penguin 2.1 was released.

The quote from the Google spokesperson to the New York Times was unclear on whether the algorithm was created specifically for the mug shot issue, or if Google had been working on an algorithm update that would ultimately take care of sites like those in question (for example, Penguin 2.1).

In a seperate inquiry to Google, I didn't receive any further support for this theory.

Journalists React to Regulations, Citing the First Amendment

Before Google stepped in with its mighty algorithm, many states had already tried to regulate these for-profit mug shot sites with legislation – legislation that violated the First Amendment, some journalists argued. From the New York Times:

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.

Earlier this year, Nieman Journalism Lab wrote a piece on a proposed Florida law that aimed to put the kibosh on the efforts of these mug shot businesses online. Its report stated that as distasteful as these exploitative sites were, "the First Amendment does not allow the government to regulate content simply because it is distasteful."

But that doesn't mean Google wouldn't regulate it. Heck, it's not the first time Google has been caught up in constitutional law with its algorithm. Like it or lump it, Google has the ability to censor results.

It wasn't just Google, however, that recently had a potentially deep impacted on the for-profit mug shot industry. Companies like MasterCard, after hearing about these sites and their practices, severed ties with those businesses.

And although Google's latest algorithm update may not have been motivated by mug shot ethics, rather, a violation of Google law, the unfortunate consequence for these mug shot websites is being extracted from the search results, much to the delight of the innocent people who just wanted to make those unflattering images go away.