The Upgrade

Flickr’s Big Change Proves You Can’t Trust Online Services

Here’s a scary warning for anyone who puts their photos in the cloud

Image: bagotaj/Getty

I need a digital moving van.

I have 60 days to relocate more than 2,100 images from their home on Flickr to another safe digital haven. The once popular photo-sharing destination announced this month that it’s limiting free membership accounts to just 1,000 images. If you want unlimited storage, you’ll have to pay $50 a year. Don’t pay up? The service will delete old photographs until you’re at the 1,000-image limit.

I already pay almost $40 a year for iCloud storage and another $99 a year for the 1 Terabyte (TB) of space that comes with my Office 365 account. I’ll skip the extra bill.

Some might call me cheap, but Flickr’s policy change highlights a larger concern for anyone storing their files on someone else’s servers, i.e. the cloud. What you understand and trust about their terms of service could change at any time. Free now — looking at you Google Photos — might not mean forever. The uncertainty around the future is reason to reevaluate the services you use in the present.

Two years ago, Flickr’s former parent Yahoo, the once powerful online giant, agreed to a $5 billion acquisition deal with Verizon. It now lives alongside another online cautionary tale, AOL, which was acquired by Verizon in 2015.

The telecom giant has spent months consolidating and cleaning house, which included quietly selling Flickr to the photo-sharing tchotchke company SmugMug. It’s a testament to how things have changed for Flickr, once the yardstick for all digital image activities. Flickr was how we first understood the meteoric rise of smartphone photography. It was the original Instagram, the place we shared and commented on photos.

Ironically, even as one of the most popular cameras used on Flickr became “iPhone,” Flickr, like much of Yahoo, failed to ride the mobile wave. Today, it’s a destination for those who care deeply about the craft of photography, excellent NASA images, and royalty-free images via Creative Commons. According to one report, the service still has 90 million monthly active users across 63 countries.

I joined Flickr 12 years ago and have driven almost a quarter of a million views to the service. Like everyone else, I stopped posting photos on Flickr and shifted my digital photography and art activities to the higher engagement of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about my existing Flickr images.

Over the years, Flickr had slowly but consistently raised the price of my pro account to the point where it no longer made financial sense for me to continue. But to limit existing free accounts to 1,000 photos isn’t fair. Most of us have built our Photostreams up over the course of years. We’ve invested time and emotion into each image and helped build the still vibrant Flickr community. Our thanks is, “Get your stuff off our digital lawn!” A community-driven service like Flickr should, even as it changes, work to honor its existing community.

At the very least, Flickr should grandfather existing accounts and only apply this rule to new members. Let the non-pro members keep any number of existing photos on the service. If existing Flickr members want to add more images or access any other “Pro” features, then charge them. Asking people to remove thousands of images, especially when not everyone will have a secure place to store them, is wrong. I might even call it “smug.”

Perhaps you’re not on Flickr and figure this isn’t your problem. But viewed from the perspective of data storage on any platform, Flickr’s decision is deeply concerning.

Nasty surprise

I’m confident that almost every person reading this has their data stored on someone’s cloud. Most likely, you use a service owned by Apple or Google. A growing percentage also use Microsoft’s OneDrive. Some consumers store their photos with Amazon.

It’s a smart move: Cloud services are distributed and redundant, which means your data is more protected than if you kept it all on one local hard drive.

But as more of our digital memories move online, we’ve put our histories in the hands of companies that act capriciously or lose control of their own narrative. Facebook has struggled with data breaches and a significant loss of consumer confidence. It’s still massive and unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon, but there is no guarantee of permanence for the service or your data. As Facebook is pressured to change how it makes money — currently, it sells access to our anonymized data to drive ad-targeting — the company may be forced to find new ways to monetize the 2.5 billion people who use its products.

Companies could very well do as Flickr has done and change the rules of the game by shrinking storage space and raising prices. I know the trend, at least with Apple and Microsoft, has been more space for less money, but how long can that last?

Or let’s say prices don’t rise. What about the other scenario: Going out of business. Perhaps this isn’t a concern for the Four Horsemen — Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon — but it’s certainly possible for smaller services like Flickr.

These are obviously nightmare scenarios. But the specter of updated terms that evict your data, files you perhaps forgot about or neglected but still care about in some vague way, is real. I have 60 days to download, store and, maybe, repost thousands of images from Flickr. It’s a big chunk of data that I don’t know if I can fit in my iCloud, Google Drive, or OneDrive accounts.

I guess I could start paying $9.99 a month to upgrade my iCloud to 2 TB a month. That’ll work, until I fill it up.

Tech expert, journalist, social media commentator, amateur cartoonist and robotics fan.

Sign up for Pattern Matching

By OneZero

A newsletter that puts the week's most compelling tech stories in context, by OneZero senior writer Will Oremus. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

The undercurrents of the future. A publication from Medium about technology and people.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store