Millions of Internet users discovered a few weeks ago that photos they had uploaded to various web forums had disappeared. In their place was an image urging them to upgrade their Photobucket accounts. Had they been hacked? No, what had happened was a business model change that may very well go down in history as a prime example of how a business can shoot itself in the foot. At the very least, it offers Internet users a cautionary tale of how free services can come to a sudden and dramatic end.
Change to Terms of Service
Photobucket changed its terms of service in late June. The company claimed to inform all users of its services that the terms had changed, but who pays attention to those notifications anyway? No one really reads Terms of Service (ToS) agreements or End User License Agreements (EULAs) to begin with, and no one expects major changes when they receive an email stating that the ToS agreement has changed. But in Photobucket’s case, they had changed significantly.
Photobucket had previously operated with a business model that allowed both for paid and free services. Its services were particularly in demand from users of web forums that didn’t have native image hosting. Users would create a Photobucket account, upload their pictures to Photobucket, then embed the links to those pictures in whichever web forum they wanted to post them in. It allowed users who didn’t have their own web hosting to upload pictures for free and post them in the forum.
That was known as third-party hosting, where the image would display on a third-party site (the web forum) while linking back to and drawing bandwidth from Photobucket. Photobucket changed its terms of service to forbid free users from being able to engage in third-party hosting. And just like that, billions of images disappeared from all across the Internet. It wasn’t just the uploaders of the photos who were hurt. Now anyone browsing web forums or searching for images on Google will no longer have access to those photos either.
There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch
Now the company will require payment of $400 a year in order for users to engage in third party hosting. The reaction from users who had enjoyed free services for over a decade now being expected to pay $400 a year was, as you can expect, strongly negative, with many decrying the move as extortion or ransom. The negative publicity Photobucket received from its move and the lack of clarification from the company had many outside observers shaking their heads and wondering how the company could be so tone-deaf.
Whether Photobucket survives this debacle or not, it serves as a cautionary tale to Internet users. Nothing is ever really “free” on the Internet. Taking advantage of free services may work for a while, but don’t be surprised when they come to an end. And while it’s popular to say that nothing can ever disappear on the Internet, it’s all a matter of where you might have to search for it to find it. Free image hosting and cloud storage may sound great in theory, but when companies go belly up or terms of service change, end users may find themselves greatly inconvenienced. If your photos, documents, and other digital files are really that important to you, the only way to keep them truly secure is to keep your own copies and back them up with multiple methods.