One of the perils of the internet is that one moment of stupidity can lead to a lifetime of infamy. Many of us have embarrassing moments immortalised online, text or pictures that have been digitally embalmed and are stubbornly resistant to any attempts to have them removed. All we can do is reconcile ourselves to it being out there and keep our fingers crossed that no one finds it.
But that isn't easy for Americans who've been arrested and had their mugshot snapped by a police department who then upload it to the internet as a matter of public record. The free availability of names and pictures of people who've been apprehended on suspicion of various offences has led to a burgeoning publishing industry both on and offline, with magazines such as Nab Shot and websites such as mugshots.com displaying rows upon rows of miserable looking people in starkly lit police stations.
But while magazines come and magazines go, online information sticks around, and the unerring talent these mugshot websites have for appearing high in search engine results ends up causing much distress, particularly for those who were arrested but not actually convicted of any crime.
The ugliest part of this, however, is the way that loosely affiliated websites then offer you the chance to have your mugshot page removed for a fee of several hundred dollars. As these pages are scuppering people's chances of securing jobs, housing and even dates, many are coughing up the cash – but with no guarantee that the same mugshot won't pop up again on another site.
Many states have been passing legislation to stop what amounts to extortion, but those on the right will protest that this is simply free enterprise at work, and that any publication of mugshots is a powerful deterrent to anyone considering committing an offence.
In the UK, police forces have demonstrated reluctance to release photos of detainees (in contravention of national guidelines) and, perhaps predictably, this was described by the Daily Mail as a "human rights farce". But those whose lives have been ruined by mugshot websites know that whatever their past misdemeanours, the internet is not a forgiving place.
Their predicament has been marginally improved this week with the news that Google has, in a rare display of corporate conscientiousness, altered its algorithm to push mugshot sites down the rankings and off the first page of search results. But with vast potential sums to be made from a devastatingly simple business model, the activities of the mugshot publication industry are destined to become a lengthy game of cat and mouse.