The Way to Stifle Speech in the Future: Bury it on Google and Deny Its Creators Electronic Payments

October 7th, 2013

Kash Hill reports on what I think is a positive development for public policy. In order to fight back against mugshot sites that extort people into paying money to take down their mugshots, the internet has turned to an extra-legal fix.

But rather than a legal fix, New York Times reporter David Segal’s investigation may be the fix. His inquiries to Google, Paypal, Visa, American Express, Discover and others about their role in promoting and monetizing these sites has led to a serious backlash. Google has changed its algorithms to rank these sites lower — under the premise that they run afoul of an unspecified Google guideline. Via the NYTimes:

[Google introduced] that algorithm change sometime on Thursday. The effects were immediate: on Friday, two mug shots of Janese Trimaldi, which had appeared prominently in an image search, were no longer on the first page. For owners of these sites, this is very bad news.

And in a move that resembles the Wikileaks payment blockade, every payment provider contacted by Segal said they had plans to cut off funding to the sites. “We looked at the activity and found it repugnant,” Mastercard general counsel Noah Hanft told Segal.

MasterCard executives contacted the merchant bank that handles all of its largest mug-shot site accounts and urged it to drop them as customers. “They are in the process of terminating them,” Mr. Hanft said.

PayPal came back with a similar response after being contacted for this article.

“When mug-shot removal services were brought to our attention and we made a careful review,” said John Pluhowski, a spokesman for PayPal, “we decided to discontinue support for mug-shot removal payments.”

American Express and Discover were contacted on Monday and, two days later, both companies said they were severing relationships with mug-shot sites.

Segal writes that Visa is also reexamining its payment processing for these sites. One of the mugshot site owners expressed dismay at the drop in site traffic and losing his ability to collect money telling Segal they’re “trying to wrap our heads around this.”

Kash notes an uncomfortable aspect of this decision (which again, I agree with on policy grounds):

Private industry may wind up doing what lawmakers are constitutionally forbidden to do: killing an ugly information practice by both burying it in search results and cutting off its funding sources. If we’re all on board with locking up the mugshot industry, it’s great. But it’s also a kind of scary display of the power of private industry to control speech on the Internet.

As I discuss in What Happens if Data is Speech, Google has staggering power to control what we see, and don’t see. If Google buries a form of speech, it may as well not even exist. Here Google is suppressing speech that we (almost) all agree is bad. But who is Google to make these decisions? And can the government step in to prevent this from happening to certain speech society wants? Or, on the flipside, can the government force Google to bury speech, short of censoring it itself.

These are really important issues, that represent the way to stifle speech in the future.

Update: More from SHG:

Before you start applauding Google and Am Ex, however, consider yet another slope on this nasty mountain, where corporations are deciding policy for our internet pleasure.  Just as they can shut down payment to the mugshot industry, they shut down payment to Wikileaks. And Google can make anybody disappear from the internet.