Digital media artist Christopher Jones sits at his desk at his home in Livermore, Calif. on Tuesday, June 4, 2013. After more than seven years and a move 2,800 miles across the country, Jones thought he'd left behind reminders of the arrest that capped a bitter break-up. That was, until he searched the Internet in May 2013 and came face-to-face with his 2006 police mug shot. The information below the photo, one of millions posted on commercial website mugshots.com, did not mention that the apartment Jones was arrested for burglarizing was the one he'd recently moved out of, or that Florida prosecutors decided shortly afterward to drop the case. But, otherwise, the graphic artist's run-in with the law was there for anyone, anywhere, to see. And if he wanted to erase the evidence, says Jones, the site's operator told him it would cost $399.
After more than seven years and a move 2,800 miles across the country, Christopher Jones thought he'd left behind reminders of the arrest that capped a bitter break-up. That was, until he searched the Internet last month and came face-to-face with his 2006 police mug shot.
The information below the photo, one of millions posted on commercial website mugshots.com, did not mention that the apartment Jones was arrested for burglarizing was the one he'd recently moved out of, or that Florida prosecutors decided shortly afterward to drop the case. But, otherwise, the digital media artist's run-in with the law was there for anyone, anywhere, to see. And if he wanted to erase the evidence, says Jones, now a resident of Livermore, Calif., the site's operator told him it would cost $399.
Jones said he was angered by the terms of the offer, but no more so than scores of other people across the country discovering that past arrests — many for charges eventually dismissed or that resulted in convictions later expunged — make them part of an unwilling, but potentially enormous customer base for a fast-proliferating number of mug shot web sites.
With a business model built on the strengths of technology, the weaknesses of human nature and the reach of the First Amendment, the sites are proving that in the Internet age, old assumptions about people's ability to put the past behind them no longer apply.
The sites, some charging fees exceeding $1,000 to "unpublish" records of multiple arrests, have prompted lawsuits in Ohio and Pennsylvania by people whose mug shots they posted for a global audience. They have also sparked efforts by legislators in Georgia and Utah to pass laws making it easier to remove arrest photos from the sites without charge or otherwise curb the sites.
But site operators and critics agree that efforts to rein them in treads on uncertain legal ground, made more complicated because some sites hide their ownership and location and purport to operate from outside the U.S.
"The First Amendment gives people the right to do this," said Marc G. Epstein, an attorney in Hallandale, Fla. who said he represents the operator of mugshots.com, which lists an address on the Caribbean island of Nevis. "I don't think there was ever a First Amendment that contemplated the permutations of communication that we have now."
Operators of some sites say they're performing a public service, even as they seek profit.
"I absolutely believe that a parent, for instance, has a right to know if their kid's coach has been arrested... I think the public has a right to know that and I feel they have a right to know that easily, accessibly and not having to go to a courthouse," said Arthur D'Antonio III, CEO of justmugshots.com, a Nevada-based site that started in early 2012 and now claims a database of more than 10 million arrest photos.
But critics are skeptical.
"I can't find any public interest that's served if you are willing to take it (a mug shot) down if I give you $500. Then what public interest are you serving?," said Roger Bruce, a state representative from the Atlanta area who authored a law, set to take effect July 1, requiring sites to remove photos free for those arrested in Georgia if they can show that charges have since been dismissed.
Scott Ciolek, a Toledo lawyer who last year brought suit against four sites on behalf of two Ohioans dismayed to find their arrest photos online, said the mug shot publishers are taking advantage of people's embarrassment to unfairly squeeze them for profit.
"The individuals who are victims of these extortions want as little attention on them as possible, if you know what I'm saying," Ciolek said.
The mug shot sites are just the latest ventures harnessing the Internet to aggregate information that previously would have taken considerable time, trouble or expense for ordinary people to uncover. That power underlies sites like ancestry.com, which compiles genealogical information including birth and death certificates, census and immigration records and other public documents in a forum that makes it much easier than previously possible for Americans to trace their family roots.
Arrest records are also widely considered to be public information and have long been collected by reporters making the rounds of police stations and courthouses. But before the advent of the web, an arrest on a charge of, say, disorderly conduct might have been printed in a local newspaper's police blotter and then mostly been forgotten.
The mug shot sites' operators use "web-scraping" programs to easily collect information from scores of police websites — and as a Texas lawsuit filed by one site operator against another shows, sometimes even to snatch those same photos from competitors. What used to be strictly local is now global, and a new tension results: Release of information widely regarded as necessarily public is, in aggregated form, viewed as potentially violating privacy.
"Certainly the world has changed in terms of the accessibility of historical information," said Jeff Hermes, director of the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. "My concern is that efforts to create a so-called 'right to be forgotten' run the risk of becoming laws that allow individuals to edit history, and that's dangerous, especially if it winds up being applied to public governmental records."
But some of those whose photos have turned up on the sites say charging people to erase the evidence of an arrest is abusive.