Google’s ‘MugShot’ Algorithm: Are Americans at Risk?

By now, you’ve heard about Google’s recent Hummingbird update. However, Hummingbird isn’t the talk of the Internet anymore — Google’s newest update has been coined the ‘MugShot Algorithm,’ and it’s raising intense ethical debates online.

Traditionally, mugshot web sites have created landing pages out of government-issued arrest details and photographs. When these landing pages start ranking well under a search for the person’s name, the person in question is often incited to pay a fee ($30-$400) to remove the page.

This hasn’t gone over well with Google. Google spokesman Jason Freidenfelds explained to the New York Times, “Our team has been working for the past few months…to address this overall issue in a consistent way.” The article shows Google working diligently to prevent sites from “monetizing humiliation” on the Internet.

However, this didn’t make everyone happy. Mugshots.com issued a statement saying,

Google’s recent algorithm modification regarding mugshots puts every person in America who performs a Google search on someone at potential risk in order to shield arrestees from embarrassment.

Employers, landlords, and even online daters use Google to verify clean slates. But what about the issue of privacy? Says a commenter on SearchEngineLand,

My co-worker’s daughter was arrested for underage drinking. She was 20. She was not charged since it was her first offense and only had to take some classes for alcohol. That was 5 years ago. Her mugshot still shows up online even though she’s old enough to consume alcohol and was never charged with any crime. Isn’t THAT horrible?

The conversation boils down to: Should Google act as an extension of the government — providing public warning and arrest details of civilians whenever a search is performed under their name? Or does this only provide the perfect platform for mugshot-style sites to procure money from individuals whose criminality is debatable? Certainly, details are available via other methods — a criminal record check is simple enough to perform — but the First Amendment does allow publishers to share data like mugshots from reputable sources (like police websites). Still, demanding payment to remove them is when those ‘extortion’ bells start ringing.

Ultimately, the ethical decision is up to Google. The ‘MugShot Algorithm’ suggests they’re leaning towards eradication of mugshot websites entirely — that discovering a criminal record attached to a name search doesn’t out-value individual privacy. It’s a safe bet to say that mugshot sites will be losing a majority of business soon, despite their protesting; if Google’s actively eliminating your rankings, you don’t stand much of a chance.

How do you believe search engines should interact with criminal records?

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