Five years ago, when Yahoo was grasping for relevance via stunts such as buying Tumblr, it breathed new life into an icon of the early internet: Flickr. Yahoo had owned the photo-hosting giant since 2005 (and then arguably ran it into the ground). In 2013, though, Flickr roared back to life with a new enticement—a freakin’ terabyte of free storage, an offer that led lots of people to start using the site as a primary photo backup.
Now, that deal is over. And Flickr’s sudden about-face serves as a reminder that even as “the cloud” sucks you in, there’s always the risk that it will dissolve underneath you.
It’s “Free” Until It’s Not
Flickr announced yesterday, several months after its acquisition by a company called SmugMug, that its days of effectively unlimited storage are over. Free accounts are now limited to 1,000 photos. Worse, accounts that exceed that limit will see their excess photos actively deleted should they fail to shell out for a new $50 unlimited storage account.
Mercifully, the process does not start immediately. Accounts with more than 1,000 pictures will be locked out of uploading on January 8, 2019. Deletions begin February 5. Flickr will start nuking photos from oldest to newest whether you’ve had the chance to archive your files or not.
This is far from the first time an online institution has crumbled under the weight of profitability and taken parts of the internet down with it. In 2009 when GeoCities was shuttered (also by Yahoo), the closure threatened to wipe out a broad swath of web history (the Internet Archive swooped in to preserve it).
Flickr’s impending cinch-down threatens the modern web in a similar way. More than your personal photo library is at stake: The service is home to more than 400 million images shared with Creative Commons licenses, an enormous public good that is also now becoming an enormous burden, since high-resolution photos are much more expensive to host and store than old GeoCities websites.
The Cloud Deception
Flickr’s abrupt change of business model is a crucial reminder of the online reality. “The Cloud” is not a place, it’s service contingent on a whole host of variables including data centre integrity, internet access, and the profitability of its stewards.
As services like Facebook and Google Photos act more and more like explicit repositories for data, it’s become easier to forget that fact. In part, that’s by design—cloud services appear suspiciously, even dangerously similar to the alternatives they replace.
Dropbox feels like a folder on your computer, iCloud feels like extra storage on your iPhone, Google Docs feels like a locally installed word processor. They encourage you to operate on the same basic assumptions you’ve had since you spun up your first hard drive: Absent a catastrophe, any file you put someplace will remain there in its glorious digital immortality. Google Photos goes so far as to encourage this notion by prodding you to delete locally stored photos to save space on your phone. That’s a handy feature that will make life easier now, but much more complicated later, if the time ever comes to pull that archive down.
It’s true that the cloud is a hedge against localized catastrophe, like a failed hard drive or house fire. But the appeal of the cloud can lull us into accepting risks that are even further beyond our control, such as acquisitions and corporate insolvency. One day your memories could be a casualty of a corporate takeover or a CEO’s change of mind.
If that future feels far off or impossible, just close your eyes and try to remember the hegemonic presence of Yahoo in 2000. While you’re at it, imagine a pair of scare quotes around Google Photos’ “unlimited” storage.