Should Credit Card Companies Get to Decide Who Does Business on the Web?

A few days ago David Segal wrote a story in the New York Times about the latest in sleazy internet rackets: companies that post mug shots from arrests and make money by charging people to take them down. Maxwell Birnbaum, a college freshman who got caught with a few Ecstasy pills in his knapsack, will soon have a clean record in the eyes of the law, but not anywhere else:

In the eyes of anyone who searches for Mr. Birnbaum online, the taint could last a very long time. That’s because the mug shot from his arrest is posted on a handful of for-profit Web sites, with names like Mugshots, BustedMugshots and JustMugshots. These companies routinely show up high in Google searches; a week ago, the top four results for “Maxwell Birnbaum” were mug-shot sites.

The ostensible point of these sites is to give the public a quick way to glean the unsavory history of a neighbor, a potential date or anyone else. That sounds civic-minded, until you consider one way most of these sites make money: by charging a fee to remove the image. That fee can be anywhere from $30 to $400, or even higher. Pay up, in other words, and the picture is deleted, at least from the site that was paid.

But that’s not the end of the story. Segal followed up with credit card companies, and they all agreed to shut down the mug shot scammers:

“We looked at the activity and found it repugnant,” said Noah Hanft, general counsel with the company. 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….American Express and Discover were contacted on Monday and, two days later, both companies said they were severing relationships with mug-shot sites. A representative of Visa wrote to say it was asking merchant banks to investigate business practices of the sites “to ensure they are both legal and in compliance with Visa operating regulations.”

This is worthy of applause. And yet….it’s also worthy of a pause. It’s possible that there’s no slippery slope here and nothing to worry about, but it’s worth asking whether we really want credit card companies making moral judgments about which businesses should be blacklisted from doing business on the web. It’s certainly possible to envision a public outcry over something that ends up cutting off a business for unpopular political views, not just semi-extortion schemes like the mug shot guys. It’s worth some thought.