The Best Way to Stop For-Profit Jerks Online

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Oct. 8 2013 12:24 PM

Guilty as Charged

The best way to stop shady mug shot website operators: talk to credit card companies.

How to stop online bad actors
Don’t waste time trying to figure out who they are, or where they live, or whether what they’re doing is illegal. Just cut off their money.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Getty Images & Thinkstock

What’s the best way to get an embarrassing photo of yourself removed from the Internet? Some people think stronger legislation is the answer—just last month, California passed a law aimed at revenge porn websites—while others turn to online reputation management firms or filing take-down notices under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

But increasingly, credit card companies and online payment providers are emerging as crucial players in the complicated and controversial debate over how to stop undesirable Internet activity.

This weekend the New York Times ran a feature on websites that post mug shots and then charge people to have them removed. Mug shots are public records, and they can be useful for journalists reporting on crimes, or employers vetting job applicants. But for people trying to put youthful indiscretions or stupid mistakes behind them, these photos—like so many other online artifacts—can prove to be serious obstacles, anchoring them permanently to their pasts and tripping them up again and again, even when no actual crime was committed.

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So far, in the United States, legal protections for people haunted by incriminating online content have been pretty weak. The recent California SB 568 requires websites to remove content posted by minors at the request of the poster—an attempt to give young adults a delete button so a poorly thought-out Facebook status won’t hurt their future—while laws passed in Oregon and Georgia earlier this year specifically target mug shot sites, requiring them to remove the photos for free if people pictured can prove they were not convicted of any crime. But as is often the case when dealing with online activity, the scope of state laws—and even national laws—can be pathetically inadequate when it comes to countering the global reach of the Internet.

Enter MasterCard.

“We looked at the activity and found it repugnant,” MasterCard General Counsel Noah Hanft told Times reporter David Segal of the websites offering to remove mug shots for fees. In the course of reporting the article, Segal brought the websites to the attention of MasterCard, American Express, Discover, and PayPal, all of which subsequently decided they would sever their relationships with the sites, effectively crippling their business model.

The story of the mug shot sites echoes a recent thread of academic research concerning a very different kind of online nuisance: spam. A 2011 study of the value chain of spam found that credit card companies and merchant banks could also play an instrumental role in countering commercial spam. The researchers found that just three banks were responsible for providing payment services to more than 95 percent of the spam-advertised products they identified. The authors hypothesize that if major credit card companies refused to carry out certain transactions with these specific banks, the spammers would have no way to sell their products and would therefore be forced out of business (or, at the very least, be forced to develop a new business model).

The underlying message of both the spam study and the mug shot article is simple enough: If you want to stop online bad actors—from nuisances to extortionists—don’t waste time trying to figure out who they are, or where they live, or whether what they’re doing is illegal. Just cut off their money.