Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Mug Shot Porn Industry

Mugged By Mug Shots:

In the eyes of anyone who searches for Mr. Birnbaum online, the taint could last a very long time. That’s because the mug shot from his arrest is posted on a handful of for-profit Web sites, with names like Mugshots, BustedMugshots and JustMugshots. These companies routinely show up high in Google searches; a week ago, the top four results for “Maxwell Birnbaum” were mug-shot sites.

The ostensible point of these sites 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 Mr. Birnbaum, and millions of other 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, as Mr. Birnbaum learned in his sophomore year, when he applied to be an intern for a state representative in Austin. 
Let's back up a second. It's not "sounds like extortion." It IS extortion. These websites are essentially criminal rackets being run under the aegis of first amendment protection.
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.
The real question that is begged, however, is why do sheriffs release these photos to the public? There is no public safety component to it (these people, after all, have not been convicted of anything), and I've yet to find a valid reason why mug shots should be considered "public records" along the lines of criminal or civil court cases. It would be like dispensing fingerprints online. There is absolutely no reason, none, why mugshots should be considered public record.

But I digress. Predictably, the scheisskopfs running these websites are pushing back.
The owners of these sites can be hard to find, or at least to reach on the phone. An exception is Arthur D’Antonio III, 25, founder of JustMugshots, which is based in Nevada (though he declined to be more specific). Mr. D’Antonio was eager to combat any suggestion that there was something illicit or unethical about the mug-shot posting business in general and his Web site in particular. 

“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,” he said. “Our goal is to make that information available online, without having to jump through any hoops.”
Snicker. Like youth sports organizations or lovelorn single people can't do simple Lexus Nexis searches on people.
He would not say how many times JustMugshots has returned money of a customer deemed too awful to delete. Nor did he seem uncomfortable being the arbiter of who is shadowed by a mug shot and who is not. He also passed on the opportunity to be photographed for this article. Better to keep a low profile, he said. 

Having his face online could create problems.
LOL. Don't you love it? They hide behind the first amendment in claiming their right to publish YOUR photos, but publishing THEIR photos is suddenly deemed a right to privacy. Why does someone arrested for a crime forfeit their right to privacy, but you as a publisher and purveyor of mug shot porn get to retain yours?

The worst part of this article, though, comes from the profession of journalism and some organization called Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. It's hard to tell looking at their website whether they're legit or some kind of extremist organization.
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. 

“What we have is a situation where people are doing controversial things with public records,” says Mark Caramanica, a director at the committee, a nonprofit organization based in Arlington, Va. “But should we shut down the entire database because there are presumably bad actors out there?”

“I understand people think there is a dilemma presented by a Web site where you can pay to have a mug shot removed,” he said. “I understand that people don’t like to have their mug shots posted online. But it can’t be extortion as a matter of law because republishing something that has already been published is not extortion.”  
Uh, no one said "republishing" is extortion. The extortion comes in the demand that if you want your photo taken down, you have to pay them. Or to wit: "extortion is obtaining money, property, or services from a person, entity, or institution, through coercion. The actual obtainment of money or property is not required to commit the offense. Making a threat of violence which refers to a requirement of a payment of money or property to halt future violence is sufficient to commit the offense. Exaction refers not only to extortion or the unlawful demanding and obtaining of something through forcebut additionally, in its formal definition, means the infliction of something such as pain and suffering or making somebody endure something unpleasant."

In other words, Mug Shot websites. How this "Reporters Committee" fails to see that is unbelievable.
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.

“It’s an effort to deny history,” says Mr. Caramanica, the committee director. “I think it’s better if journalists and the public, not the government, are the arbiters of what the public gets to see.”  
Sorry, Mark, but you're the last person I want as arbiter of what should or shouldn't be public information, particularly if you draw a false equivalency between health inspections or home sales, and mug shots.

What we know is a simple truth: mug shots are porn for cheap journalism. They do draw big traffic (as the article notes) and most low-rent online newspapers routinely put their local mug shots on their splash page in order to get visitors to linger.

It's the "slowing down at traffic accidents" principle of journalism. Whatever lowest common denominator you can get away with publishing is all that matters.

Anyway, it actually sounds like the free market may come in and finish off these porn sites.

Once they were made aware of the extortion going on, Google moved quickly to bury access to these sites well off the first few pages of searches, and companies like Paypal, American Express and Discover decided to ban payments to the websites.

Still, it's a sad day when corporate America has a better understanding of the first amendment than a bunch of journalists. They should be ashamed of their stance.

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