On Flickr Deleting User Accounts

Whether it’s Flickr, Facebook, Tumblr, email or any of the many usefuly web-based services that are all the rage now,

Whether it’s Flickr, Facebook, Tumblr, email or any of the many usefuly web-based services that are all the rage now, users should keep in mind that terms of service can change, companies can be bought and mistakes can happen–especially if a service is free.

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To recap what happened with Flickr, photographer Mirco Wilhelm had been using Flickr’s Pro service for five years before his account was abruptly deleted due to a misinterpreted service request. At first, Flickr told Mr. Wilhelm there was no way to recover his account. Mr. Wilhelm works in I.T., so he knew there had to be ways to get his photos back. Sure enough, after he raised a stink, Flickr restored his account and the 3,400 photos in it faithfully. Mr. Wilhelm was given free Flickr Pro access until 2036 as compensation for the inconvenience.

But what happens to users who aren’t so internet-savvy and don’t have their stories picked up by the media? “I didn’t get quite as nearly a nice apology,” says Scott Branch, who mostly photographs female models. His account had 5,000 photos, 5,000 followers, 500 contacts and nearly two million views at the time, he said–hardly a casual user.

Mr. Branch’s two-year old account was deleted in 2009 because the company said his content violated the terms of service–and it wasn’t because Mr. Branch’s photos verge on soft-core porn.

Flickr sent this from its terms of service by way of explanation:

# Don’t upload anything that isn’t yours.

This includes other people’s photographs and/or stuff that you’ve collected from around the Internet. Accounts that consist primarily of such collections may be terminated.

Flickr reserves the right to deactivate your account without warning at any time.

Mr. Branch responded at the time:

This is a large, large error because every BIT of content that was (and always will be) on my streams is content that was shot and copyrighted by me. Every photo and every video. I’ve also never posted anything from the internet and definitely not anything from someone else’s stream. I own and operate both ipanemic.com and headlessbuddha.com under which names I have copyrights.

So there has been a tremendous error here.

Flickr eventually admitted a mea culpa but said the photos could not be recovered. “They restored my account in true shell form with only the name remaining. No photos, no contacts, no comments, no favs, no followers. And said ‘sorry,'” he said in an email. To compensate, the company gave Mr. Branch a year’s worth  ($24.95) of Flickr Pro service.

Many web-based services save user data for some time after an account is deleted as a buffer in case of mistakes like these–an account is first “deactivated” or information is marked “deleted” in a database without being removed. The data may also exist in other places, such as a search engine cache.

Flickr and Yahoo declined to say how it was able to retrieve the photos in Mr. Wilhelm’s case and what was done there may not have been possible for Mr. Branch. His case could have taken too long before being escalated by which time the photos really had been removed.

Mr. Branch gave up and started rebuilding his account from scratch. “I will in the next couple of days hit 10 million views on my account,” he said. “I like Flickr. I do. But I can only hope that Flickr doesn’t accidentally wipe my account again. Or if they do, that some news outlet picks it up next time.”

An extreme case, to be sure, but stories like Mr. Branch’s are not unusual. Which prompts the question, are we becoming too reliant on web services?

The precariousness of storing photos with Flickr–or any kind of media, with any web-based service–is due to more than human error and the vagaries of databases. The social media craze has every mainstream user using at least a few cloud-dependent apps. But the ecosystem of web apps is largely populated by startups, which are volatile. Startups can be bought out, run into the ground, run out of money, or abandoned, and often there won’t be a 1-800 number to call to find out what happened. Customers of the file-sharing service Drop.io had to retrive their data and find a replacement service after the company was bought out and shut down by Facebook last year. Myspace, with about 50 million users, will be up for sale soon, and who knows what will happen to its users’ connections, photos, and other data. And those are the big ones–personally, I use several apps that I’m tempted to rely on but are really more like side projects for the people behind them–the simple but elegant TeuxDeux and Nate Westheimer’s Ohours, for example.

The lack of attention being paid to Flickr, whose customer service reps appear to lack technical expertise as well as graciousness, seems like another example of Yahoo neglecting a service it bought despite that service having a large, loyal userbase. After news leaked that Yahoo planned to sunset or get rid of the social bookmarking service Delicious, fear spread that Yahoo would nix Flickr next.

Yahoo’s ultimate response to the recent Flickr drama is a good sign for fans of the service. While it was about a day late, Yahoo/Flickr did the necessary things: apologized, fixed the problem, arguably overcompensated Mr. Wilhelm, and are working on a solution to prevent the same mistake in the future. But we appreciate the reminder that the internet is not written in ink.

ajeffries [at] observer.com | @adrjeffries


On Flickr Deleting User Accounts