Mug-shot websites move beyond journalism to mainstream profiteers
After failing to find a news job in North Carolina, former crime reporter Greg Rickabaugh launched The Jail Report, a weekly newspaper with companion websites, including TheJailReport.com and AugustaCrime.com. The publications feature crime news, analysis and features on repeat offenders and local law enforcement’s most wanted criminals. But the staple of the publications are pictures of people who have been arrested -- publicly available mug-shots.
Rickabaugh’s business is booming. Since 2009, he’s grown to employ four full-time workers, a dozen part-timers and two of his brothers quit their full-time jobs to help him manage the company. Rickabaugh boasts that he’s earning more money publishing mug-shots than he ever did as a reporter, and he’s expanded the operation into South Carolina and California. But thanks to the proliferation of other mug-shot websites, Rickabaugh’s business model is under attack. In Georgia, where his flagship publication is located, one lawmaker is pursuing legislation to ban mug-shot websites outright.
These days, mugshot websites are popping up all over the place, started by people with no journalism background and no journalism intent. These entrepreneurs are tapping into new media tools and techniques to access public records from sheriff's office websites. They import the photos and other information into websites then charge people hundreds or even thousands of dollars to have the content removed.
“Their entire intent is to put somebody’s mug-shot online where, when someone searches for their name, it comes up. So when you go to the website, not only do they show you the arrest information and the picture, they’ll also tell you ‘here is how to get it removed,’" Rickabaugh told Poynter in a telephone interview, differentiating his website from the other mug shot sites because he also provides crime news stories, analysis, features, and public service information.
“Some people have mug-shots on three or four different websites, so they have to pay multiple times to get their information removed. There’s one guy who was making half a million dollars a year doing this. It’s almost extortion really.”
The history of publishing mug shots
Public access to arrest records dates all the way back to the Revolutionary War. British colonials used to arrest people in secret, and the public would never know who was arrested or why. Rebel colonists changed that, but never could have imagined what's now being done with these records in the digital age.
In 2009, Matt Waite helped develop one of the first mug-shot websites for Poynter's Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times. Both Waite and the Times were criticized because the sleek interface seemed to provide more entertainment than journalistic value. "We told the truth about what we'd be doing," Waite said, adding that journalists told critics about the steps they'd take against becoming an archive for people's past mistakes.
Now a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln, Waite said he fears the impact these other websites are having on the news industry and open government.
"As a journalist I am deeply disturbed by them because they are using public records against people. And really it's a matter of time before legislatures figure out that their constituents are being held up by these sites. It's very clearly a money making thing, where they say, 'You can pay us to have your name removed' from these things," Waite told Poynter by telephone.
"I don't think that's in the spirit of the public records law, I think it's actively harmful to the idea of open records and open government, and I'm afraid of what the consequences are going to be."
When creating its mug-shot feature, journalists at the Tampa Bay Times took into consideration the length of time the photos would be made available on the paper's highly-trafficked website. Because the paper couldn't know whether people arrested would be found guilty or not guilty of their charges, all mugs were deleted after 60 days, about the same amount of time it takes a misdemeanor case to be adjudicated, Waite said. The paper also blocked Google from indexing the records, so if you searched for a person's name, the paper's mug-shot web page would not appear.
"We did those things because we are journalists and we thought responsibly about what we were doing," said Waite.
But, that's not how today's version of mug-shot websites work.
The new mug-shot websites
There’s no need for old school journalism methods in order to get mug shots these days, such as filing public information requests or visiting the county jail to pick up photographs. Rickabaugh and others in the mug-shot business use software to quickly and continuously scrape content from publicly available sheriff office websites. Initially, The Tampa Bay Times also scraped content from the county sheriff's website, but law enforcement officials asked the paper to stop doing that, Waite recalled. The sheriff's office later provided the paper with an application programming interface to access the content more efficiently, he said.
The content is then published on privately owned websites, in printed newspapers, and made available through web searches.
Ads appear on the mug-shot web pages of the Tampa Bay Times, where Waite continues to consult. The paper earns revenue from the pictures, Waite said, but he does not know how much since he's been gone from the company for a year. Regardless, journalists have been making money off of crime news forever. "Making money off of mug-shots isn't really the point, it's how you go about making money off of them," Waite said.
Making money by exploiting state public records laws and Google’s search algorithms to publicly shame people is a growth industry, writes David Kravets for Wired. Even when the host websites don’t directly charge to remove the content, so-called reputation management websites fill the gap.
Kravets profiled Florida.arrests.org, which constantly crawls 37 of the state’s counties to get years-old arrest data as well as information on new busts. Started by a former felon whose mug-shot isn't included on the site, Florida.arrests.org absorbs arrest records at a rate of 1,500 a day and hosts about 4 million mug-shots, according to Kravets.
“Visitors to [the] site can comment on the photos, or browse them by tags like ‘Celebrity,’ ‘Hotties,’ ‘Trannies,’ ‘Tatted up’ and ‘WTF,’ Kravets reports. “Most of the photos are of adults, but children as young as 11 are also on display if they’re accused of adult crimes.”
The primary problem is arrests are not convictions. People are often arrested but charges are later dropped or they are exonerated. While sheriff's offices typically (the practice varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction) delete mug-shots of people who aren’t convicted, that’s not necessarily true of mug-shot websites.These sites are often run by profiteers who take advantage of public sites, the same sites news organizations rely on to help inform the public.
The arrest of a young college student who ultimately did not face charges, but whose scholarship was being threatened because her mug-shot found its way online, is what convinced Georgia legislator Roger Bruce to push for a new law that will ban the websites.
“We don’t want to infringe on the rights of the legitimate media to report what the news is, and we don’t want to infringe on anybody’s constitutional rights to freedom of speech. But you also want to protect people from being extorted," said Bruce in a telephone interview.
Bruce said he will likely introduce the legislation in the Georgia General Assembly in January.
New law could affect all mug-shot websites
Rickabaugh's Augusta, Georgia-based weekly mug-shot newspaper that he started in 2009 is in about 90 percent of the city’s convenience stores where people pay $1 per issue of the paper. Most of his revenue, he said, comes from single copy sales and advertising. He declined to reveal specific revenue numbers, but said he does not actively sell ad space. "They seek us out," he said of advertisers that include several bail bonds companies.
Rickabaugh said if people can demonstrate they have been exonerated he will remove their mug-shots from his website, for free. The former cops reporter said he’s already personally removed about 10 mug-shots in the past four months. Rickabaugh said he understands that predatory websites are giving people like him who run news-oriented mug-shot websites a bad rep, but he fears Rep. Bruce's legislation might go too far and could restrict media access to public information.
Even if mug-shot websites do not charge people directly to remove embarrassing information, there are allies in the form of so-called ‘reputation management’ firms. Wired's Kravets writes that a Utah high-tech employee paid $399 to RemoveSlander.com to erase his mug-shot (for a 2007 DUI arrest) from Florida.arrests.org and Google search results. But, as Rickabaugh said earlier – and Bruce echoed – multiple sites may have the information. Not only can this exacerbate removal costs, people may never know how many sites have the information or whether the photos will pop up again on another site.
There is no legal recourse and no legal means to prevent the exploitation of public records in this way in the digital age, said Clifford S. Fishman, a law professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Before the Internet, there were practical restraints on publicizing police allegations, including mug-shots, that were limited to word of mouth or local newspapers and TV stations. Even after the Internet, there were restraints, Fishman said, in that publicizing embarrassing photos was limited to “famous people looking their worst after getting arrested.” That’s all changed now that just about anybody can publish just about anything to a wide audience.
Beyond invading privacy and damaging reputations in ways that cannot be undone even if the charges on which a person is arrested are later proven baseless, Fishman said in a telephone interview that publishing arrest records is not necessarily in the public interest, and that news organizations shouldn’t have general access to mug-shots any more than private bloggers or more predatory websites. “At least not until there’s been a conviction,” he said.
Waite empathizes with legislators and Fishman, but said removing public access to mug-shots is taking a step backward.
"The idea of regulating this so that only legitimate news sites have access raises questions about who's a legitimate news site and about who decides who's a legitimate news site," he said. "Are we taking a step toward government licensure of news organizations and of journalists? That too carries consequences, consequences that news organizations have traditionally been very uncomfortable with."
The First Amendment states that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press, but the proliferation of mug-shot websites is testing that provision.
"Frankly I wish people weren't using public records to embarrass and make money off of people," Waite said. "This is a very, very tricky situation."