My friend Mike Monteiro is one of the more active Flickr users I know. He's always doing something interesting there, and has been a big promoter of it for as long as I can recall. Yet yesterday, he received a threatening letter from Flickr based on unspecified actions on his part:
I got an email from Flickr today telling me they’ve marked my account as ‘unsafe.’ There’s vague allusions to “bad things” I’ve done, but they didn’t bother to tell me what they were; therefore I can’t fix them. They also said if I do them again they’ll boot me. Again, I don’t know what those things are. I could guess, of course, but what if I guess wrong? It feels very much like I’m fighting with a FIFA ref.
Look, let's not be fucking stupid. It was almost certainly Mike's recent photo of three dudes walking naked through the streets of San Francisco that got his account flagged. I could mount a defense of his right to post that photo unflagged (it's not porn, he was documenting legal activity within his community, etc., etc.) but then we're just arguing about what is and isn't decent, and that misses the point.
The point is that Flickr doesn't spell out which photo was flagged, or what he could do to have his account deleted. Instead it uses vague but frightening language that says "if we receive another report about your content or conduct, it's very likely we'll terminate your account."
Here's the thing about Flickr: many people now use it as a storage vault for their photo archives. Mike, like myself, has been a Flickr pro user for a very long time. He posts pictures of his family and other important events from his life on Flickr. I do the same. What's more, I don't tend to keep locally stored versions anymore. This may be stupid, to trust the cloud as much as I do, but I do it.
Moreoever, I even tend to suggest to people that they use Flickr as a storage medium. For $25 a year, I typically explain, not only can you share your pictures online, you can also have a secure storage site that will be there when you pour coffee on your hard drive. But I'm starting to think I may be wrong about that.
In fact, that attitude has screwed me once before. After I raced Escape from Alcatraz in 2008, I downloaded my finishing video. Because the race wasn't going to keep the videos stored online indefinitely, racers only had a limited time to download and archive their videos. After downloading it, I then uploaded it to Flickr (which the video's permissions gave me the right to do) so I could keep it forever, and deleted it from my hard drive. But here's the thing: Escape from Alcatraz is sponsored by Accenture. The video had an Accenture tag on it. A few weeks after uploading it, this email suddenly landed in my inbox:
Dear Mat Honan,
In joining Flickr, you agreed to abide by the Terms of Service and Community Guidelines. Flickr accounts are intended for individual use, for our members to share photos or video that they've created, and not to sell stuff:
"Don't Use Flickr for Commercial Purposes Flickr is for personal use only. If you sell products, services or yourself through your photostream, we will terminate your account. Any other commercial use of Flickr, Flickr technologies (including APIs, Flickrmail, etc), or Flickr accounts must be approved by Flickr."
We have removed the video that was commercial in nature from your account. If you continue to upload videos that contain commercial content, we may take further action on your account.
My finish video--the only one I had--was gone. I had worked so very hard for months to achieve that moment, and now my record of it was gone. Worse, when I wrote Flickr back to appeal, I could not even get a response. Nothing. The company completely ignored me. Of course, I wasn't using Flickr in any of the ways described above. My video simply had a corporate logo on it. But Flickr still fucked me, and destroyed my data. I was steamed that they deleted my video without warning (rather than, say, simply marking it as private where only I could view or download it.) Worse, I had a sense that Flickr hadn't really examined my content before deleting it. It felt arbitrary and capricious. And that's the problem.
Because it has very many paying users who have invested years of data in its service, Flickr needs to very clearly spell out what is and isn't acceptable use. And when a problem arises, Flickr ought to give users an easy way to remove our data from its servers before it deletes that data (especially when that data is not in any way violating laws or community norms, but that's another issue) or terminates accounts.
Flickr has a vested interest in making it hard for its users to get photos off of it once online. If it were easier to remove photos, you'd be more likely to leave its service for another. That policy, however, is in conflict with its arbitrary account termination policy.
If Flickr is threatening to terminate people's accounts, it really needs to do one of two things (or even better, both). The first is to be more specific. That should be obvious. It's a bullshit move to say "if you do this again you're out of here" without spelling out what "this" is. Second, it needs to make it easy for people to remove their photos, all of them, in a process that's clearly spelled out and easily accessible.
To be clear: I'm not defending Mike's content. But I am defending his right to know exactly what he did, and his right to easily and completely back up all his data. Right now, Flickr gives him neither of those options.