Call a Spade a Spade: Mugshot Sites and Revenge Porn Sites are Extortion

The New York Times published this excellent roundup on the rash of online ‘mugshot’ sites, which scrape and publish mugshots, then charge the persons pictured varying amounts of ‘service’ fees to remove the photos, which quickly rise to the top of Google search queries for the person’s name.

This practice has been picked up by revenge porn sites. The first to do so was Craig Brittain, whose IsAnybodyDown site posted nude photos purloined using fake people on Craigslist personals ads, then used a fictional lawyer (“David Blade III”) to ‘negotiate’ with the site to take the photos down — for $250. (Brittain, to his credit, shut down his site and renounced the revenge porn business, although he’s never admitted to being David Blade.) Brittain’s efforts were replicated by UGotPosted.com, operated by Eric Chanson and Kevin Bollaert, who interposed a fictional company (“Change My Reputation”) to negotiate with their site to remove nude photos. After somebody tipped off PayPal to this scheme, “Change My Reputation” began soliciting payment by way of Amazon.com giftcards before shutting down entirely in September.

Today, a revenge porn site (which I will not name because it’s still active) demands that victims send $500 via Western Union to an individual in the South Pacific who likely acts as a middleman for the true operators of the website, while DMCA.com — otherwise a legitimate site — openly processes an “administration fee” to take down content for a site commonly used for revenge porn.

While credit card operators and Google are jointly evaluating their roles in unintentionally enabling these extortionate practices, the sites — deprived of the easiest methods of processing payments — will follow the revenge porn sites and begin using new methods of soliciting payment. While the larger sites may abandon the practice entirely (one would hope), scraping mug shots is not a difficult feat. The practice will continue so long as a single owner can continue finding new ways to process payments, even if for a short period of time, playing a long game of whack-a-mole while the larger competitors throw in the towel.

There are two simple solutions:

1. Police departments should stop posting mugshots publicly. The content largely derives from police departments posting booking photos en masse, whether the individual is later convicted, wholly innocent, or ever charged at all. Rather, the photos are published as a warning: don’t get arrested, because even if you’re not convicted, we’ll embarrass you. There’s little utility in publishing the photos: police could share the photos only with law enforcement officers as a means of identifying suspects. To sate the public interest, departments could continue to provide mugshots to media outlets or any member of the public willing to pony up a modest fee, creating a barrier to wanton scraping of free content by mugshot sites. To mugshot sites, even a modest fee would be cost-prohibitive to their business model, even if they could find a way to automate the process. Deprived of free content, mugshot sites will perish.

2. Call it as it lies: demanding payment to take down mugshots (or revenge porn) is extortion. The FBI has already taken the first step in identifying this practice as “extortion” and seeking victims, potentially the first step towards prosecution. To be sure, the application of extortion statutes (see, e.g., 18 USC § 875) is unclear in the internet context: is it extortion to solicit payment under penalty of continued publication of embarassing photos, once the cat is already out of the bag? I think so: even if I’ve already told Jim about your midnight rendezvous with your secretary, it’s still extortion if I offer to stop telling others who might be more invested, like your wife. Further, sites which create fake middlemen to ‘negotiate’ are likely engaging in wire fraud.

Until police departments stem the steady stream of mugshots in an extortionate attempt to get people to stop being arrested for petty crimes, these sites will continue to thrive, notwithstanding pressure from Google and legitimate credit card processors. In the meantime, law enforcement has plenty of tools to deter these extortionate sites.

Maybe the webmasters’ photos will even wind up on one of their former competitors’ sites.

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