Flickr User Posts Comments Critical of Obama on the Official White House Photostream and Has His Comments Along With His Entire Flickrstream Deleted Without Warning


If you don’t think that Flickr should delete accounts without warning and censor political speech digg this here.

I was dismayed today to read about the latest alleged case of Flickr Censorship. Censorship (or as they like to call it “moderation”) continues to be a problem on Flickr.

The most recent case is that of Flickr User Shepherd Johnson. According to Johnson on the evening of Wednesday June 3rd, he posted comments critical of President Obama on “8 or so” photos on the White House’s official Flickrstream. He said that he posted these comments because he was upset with the language that Obama chose to use in his recent Cairo speech regarding terrorism. Johnson said that two days later his comments had been scrubbed and deleted from the Flickr photos. Johnson shared with me the type of comment that he made and what he shared with me seemed appropriate and polite.

On Friday, June 5th, once again Johnson posted more comments on photos in the official White House Flickrstream. This time comments that were critical of the President’s recent decision to try and withhold photographs of detainee prison abuse.

From Johnson:

“Well, Friday it so happens is the day the Senate voted and passed the Graham/Lieberman bill called The Detainee Photographic Records Protection Act of 2009. Which allows the Obama administration to withhold from the public photos of horrible acts used by the Bush administration in it’s so called War on Terror. This to me was unacceptable. There are so few venues where the public can air grievances with our leaders and our government. This forum being the Official Whitehouse Photostream is an acceptable (I thought) place for me to make my comments known.”

Unfortunately for Johnson at about 11:00pm on June 05, 2009 when he tried to log on to his flickr account, he found that it was terminated without warning.

Again from Johnson:

“No explanation or anything. One second I was on and then I could not access my account. When I got back onto flickr using another account I went back to the Whitehouse site and all of my postings had been scrubbed. They were gone. I had about a years worth of work on that account and they just terminated my account with no warning. Some of the photos I had on the account had no back ups so they are now gone forever.”

You can see a cache of Johnson’s deleted Flickr account here. It was a paid Pro Flickr account with over 1,000 photographs in it.

It is interesting that Johnson was also using his Flickrstream to post additional photos that he had taken of government officials. Here is a flickr photo of his of his still intact from wikimedia of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke leaving Bilderberg last year. In fact, if you look through the cached copy of his former Flickrstream you will see that a great deal of the photographs in his flickrstream were of political events, protests and politicians.

It is very unfortunate that Flickr would choose to take this course of action with one of their members. Freedom of Speech is an important thing and something that ought to be encouraged at Yahoo, not punished. Political speech especially ought to be give a very wide berth with regards to tolerance. It is even more eggregious given that this user was never even warned over the comments that he made, his account was simply irreversibly and permanently deleted. It is wrong for Flickr to do this. I’ve long argued that at a minimum Flickr ought to suspend offensive accounts temporarily (they could easily do this by simply making every photo in a user’s stream private) and allow an appeals process for grievances rather than simply acting with dictatorial power as a censor.

I contacted Yahoo regarding this latest censorship on their part and received back the following official response from their PR firm:

Flickr Statement:

In accordance with Flickr’s policy, we cannot disclose information to third parties concerning a member’s account. However, in joining Flickr, all of our members agree to abide by our Community Guidelines. These guidelines require that all of our members be respectful of the community and flag content that may not be suitable for “safe” viewing. Our members have always done a great job of identifying inappropriate and offensive content on Flickr and bringing it to our attention. We encourage all members to continue to make Flickr a safe place to share photos and videos.

Flickr is a very large community made up of many types of members from all over the world, and we respect the viewpoints and expressions of all of our members. In crafting the Community Guidelines, Flickr weighed the rights of the individual vs. the rights of the overall community, and built a system that would enable members to choose what they want to view. As with any community, online or off, there are members who may disregard the Community Guidelines. When this happens, Flickr may have to take action accordingly towards building a respectful community. For more information:”

Update: In another forum here, Johnson has stated that he left a voicemail on Carol Bartz’s personal cell phone on the matter. He said after leaving this message that he had a returned phone call from Flickr Community Manager Heather Champ who told him that this account was deleted because he posted a photo of a prison detainee and because they accused him of “spamming” flickr. You can read the relevant forum thread here. Apparently another flickrstream where Johnson got the detainee photo was also deleted. Johnson is also stating that Heather told him that she did not know anything about the other deleted comments which may mean that they were actually deleted by the White House itself.

From Johnson: “She said that [edit: posting a detainee abuse photo] was part of the reason and the other part was that she claimed that I was spamming the forum, to which I asked her if she also gave warnings to the people who posted on twenty photographs the same “That’s my President Go bama!” type drivel over and over and over again. I also had her define the word “spam”, to which she could not. She seemed very careful to place her words correctly. We talked for about two hours. I think Carol really got under her skin. Carol apparently didn’t speak with her directly, she got the trickle down effect. Oh yeah, she offered me a $24.99 gift card for a new pro account but told me my precious photos and the hard work that I put in over the past year were irretrievable. I had over 53,000 views on that account. Some consolation.”

Update #2: More from Johnson: “Heather only mentioned that she deleted the comments concerning the Abu Ghraib photo, when I asked her about the original comment on the Obama Cairo Speech she had no idea what I was talking about. I crafted my dialogue with her to find out exactly what she knew and when she knew it. That means that somebody connected with the Whitehouse, one of Peter Souza’s staff or an intern, deleted my comments originally.

Update #3: See more on this story from the San Francisco Chronicle here and Gawker here, and the Silicon Valley Insider here, and Techmeme here, CNN here, BusinessWeek here, and the NY Post here, if you prefer Italian here.

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66 comments on “Flickr User Posts Comments Critical of Obama on the Official White House Photostream and Has His Comments Along With His Entire Flickrstream Deleted Without Warning
  1. Scott Bourne says:

    Hi Thomas – do you have any independent verification of this guy’s story? He says his account was deleted for political reasons. Maybe he just said that to get attention for a political statement in the first place? I am not saying it didn’t happen the way he said it did, but it would be nice to have something other than his word for it. I’ve seen similar situations where people claimed they were banned for something innocent – only to find out there was some OTHER or additional reason that was more substantive.

  2. Eyes of Gold says:

    That is downright scary. People should be able to speak their mind without fear of being “punished” for it. I could see if he was making threats or something extremely hateful.

  3. Automatt says:

    Not to get in the way of a good ole internet mob, but I agree with Scott.

  4. Dustin Finn says:

    Why should people be able to speak their mind, in a forum, thats meant for photography (not exactly political commentary) ?

    Considering Flickr is a photo sharing website and not a political commentary website, I feel that its not the proper venue for the discussion.

    Now, the primary issue is that the Flickr Admins Moderated the account to deletion without notice or warning… I would at least like warning.

    My best example is that lots of photography forums have different sections, Moderators often ask people to not ask Nikon questions in the Canon forum and to not talk about sports photograpy in the nature section… its about keeping things on topic, on point, and the Flickr Stream is a way to show some insight, via photographs, into the White House… Why would it be for discussions around political views ?

  5. Lans Hobart says:

    I agree with Scott too, however, it looks like Thomas contacted Flickr and gave them the opportunity to clarify it’s position and they declined. Given this situation, my tendency is to believe the guys story until someone can refute it.

  6. Thomas Hawk says:

    Scott, I contacted Yahoo PR and Flickr Community Manager Heather Champ for comment on the matter prior to publishing my response. They gave the following statement above. Certainly if they did not delete his account I’d think that they could say that. Instead they simply chose a “no comment” sort of response. At this point the issue is a matter of public record though and they are certainly welcome to dispute any facts in this article. Unfortunately they seem to be the only avenue at this point to articulate on this at the moment and they are choosing to clam up.

    By the way their response that they don’t comment on their censorship on member accounts is not entirely accurate. When they censored _rebekka a few years back Stewart Butterfield was very vocal and even issued a public apology over it.

    If Stewart could comment to the BBC on what happened to _rebekka’s acocunt, Flickr certainly can comment here on why they deleted Johnson’s account if it is for another reason than the comments that he left on the Whitehouse’s photostream.

  7. Ben says:

    Take a look at Johnson’s comments on flickr. The guy is a troll. Trolls get deleted from flickr if they are being trolls. Period. There is a difference between stating your political views and being an ass.

  8. “Dustin Finn says:
    June 9, 2009 at 1:38 pm
    Why should people be able to speak their mind, in a forum, thats meant for photography (not exactly political commentary)?”

    Dustin F, And you don’t think the White House Flickrstream is a political tool? What better place to make a statement about withholding detainee photos than on the Flickrstream? This smells very bad. This PR will, as it did with rebekka; only contribute to more distrust of Flickr and Yahoo.

    And once more: Do not put photos or artwork on any site without additional backups! Don’t put yourself through that pain.

  9. Thomas Hawk says:

    Dustin, the White House is officially using this Flickrstream. They are actually a terribly political entity. If they are going to allow public comments on a social media site, they should do it in an uncensored way. I can think of fewer places *more* appropriate in fact to have a discussion about prison detainee photos.

    An open and transparent Govt is a good Govt.

    I think what is starting to trouble me more is that according to Johnson, Flickr was not aware that his comments critical of Obama had been deleted before they deleted his account. This leads me to believe that there is a good possibility that the comments were actually deleted by the White House itself. If the White House is going to engage social media, they need to do it honestly and not censor their critics. I assume that our tax dollars are going to produce the stream in question as an official White House photostream. They should treat all commentors with the same respect — supporters and critics alike.

  10. Citysnaps says:

    I’m always skeptical when I only hear one side of the story. And if there’s some doubt, ambiguity, or missing information, would not leap to one side and express as conclusive fact.

  11. Theresa says:

    Maybe the person responsible for monitoring the White House flickr stream blocked Johnson before hitting “report abuse”. When the flickr staff responsible for deleting accounts got the abuse report he probably looked at Johnson’s stream and decided to delete it on the basis of Johnson posting photos that he didn’t own the copyright for.

  12. Lewis Walsh says:

    If someone left comments on my flickr stream that I didn’t like, I’d delete them too. It may sound cavalier but they are my images. I especially defend the whitehouse staff deleting comments if they had nothing to do with the photograph.

    As for deleting the flick account, who am I to speculate. It may be that the whitehouse staff member who removed the comments looked through his photo stream, saw something he found questionable and reported, I don’t know. I think flickr needs some sort of warning system rather than just removing accounts when they see fit, especially pro accounts which are paid for.

  13. Fred says:

    Does anyone else find it really creepy that every caption in the White House photostream begins with “President Barack Obama”? That’s cult of personality stuff you might expect from someplace like North Korea.

  14. Digg is dead... says:

    DIGG censors political posts; DIGG is known for having become an Obamabot Factory; they’ve banned many Ron Paul supporters for their dissent against Obama’s lies and his anti-American positions, so … whatever … good luck getting your message out.

  15. Nathaniel says:


  16. Jeff Bayer says:

    While I’m saddened that Flickr has done what they have done, as the owner of a family-friendly blog hosting service, I’m going to have to agree with Antonio Piccolboni, who commented earlier. Flickr is a Business Entity, a Corporation, and as such constitutionally has a right to IT’S OWN freedom of speech, the same as that of an individual. Flickr can allow or deny the posting of ANYTHING they want, and they are 100% justified in their censorship. CONGRESS, on the other hand, “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

    I don’t have a Flickr account, and although I am a photographer in need of a place to show my pictures, maybe Flickr is just not my type. I’ll have to give it a second thought.

    As the owner of, I have EVERY right to censor whatever is on that site, no matter who puts it there… and I DO! People who don’t like it can, and will, go somewhere else to propagate their filth… good riddance! I will have to say though, I only draw the line from a decency point of view… all political views are fine at Flickr is probably guilty of drawing the wrong line, although they have every right to do so. :)

  17. I think a lot of people are missing the point on this one.

    Certainly Flickr has the right to do whatever they want with their accounts and has the right to set whatever TOS they choose. The issue is not in Flickr’s TOS. The issue is that it looks like the White House pressured Flickr into removing an account that disagreed with this administration’s policies.

    Many of the above comments (in your Friendfeed thingamabobber) were frankly depressing. I understand that – under normal circumstances – Flickr is the appropriate forum to complain or comment about things that aren’t photo related. However, given that this a photostream set up by the White House and the fact that this was probably the most direct way for Shepherd Johnson to communicate with the president, I don’t fault him for choosing this venue. It isn’t like someone coming to my blog and calling me a bitch (though, for the record, I approve all non-spam comments and let them all stand), which is what many of those above commenters seem to be likening it to.

    Furthermore, even if the guy is a major, pain in the ass troll, this was one bit of trolling that should have never been wiped from the internet. It sends a bad message to the public that the White House takes internet shenanigans very seriously, regardless of what actually happened.

  18. Dustin Finn says:

    I don’t know, I am still not feeling that Flickr, is the place for the comments of whats going on and how this person felt about the political work being done by the government…

    I’m sure the government thought this was a way to expose the photos taken of the president to the public faster than traditional media could…

    I understand the points, I see where people are coming from, but even reading the PR statement about the rebekka issue, even Flickr just wants everything to be happy – go lucky – please don’t be mean or tell the truth (like how some people’s photos suck) – just be nice…

    so thats that – it is what it is.

  19. Big Mike says:

    What does John’s comments have anything to the actual photo the comment was attached to? Flickr is well in their right to delete any comments by users treating other users’ photostreams as their own personal soap box.

  20. Fred says:

    So, Johnson pushed the censor hot button: Help! I’m being oppressed!

    Uh, no. Reading his continuing comments, he is being a jerk bordering on stalker.

  21. Mike says:

    This is why the internet sucks. Everybody leapt onboard relishing with their new “freedom” without realizing the whole point of the internet is to control what people say or do more easily. Imagine being able to erase text in a printed newspaper or rewind a radio broadcast…can’t be done. On the internet, however…..

  22. Arun says:

    Thanks Thomas, for the comment you posted on my blog.

    If Flickr had good cause (did it? – we don’t know!) it should have suspended Johnson’s posting privileges and given him notice that his photographs would be removed and he had until such-and-such time to retrieve whatever he wanted to.

    Summary account deletion for a paid – not free – account for an expression of political views is, among other things, bad business practice.

  23. Frederik says:

    I agree that the measures that fickr used to stop him from making these comments are extremely radical and unnecessary but I may think it’s important to pont out that I don’t think that the white house photostream is the right place to write down critique on president Obama.

  24. shawn says:

    HaHa! I knew flickr sucked! I must say they are pretty lame if they won’t let people voice their opinions.. whoever runs flickr is just a douche! I’m going to delete my account..

  25. I was recently hit with a “marked as restricted” by Flickr. I have no idea why. The e-mail from Flickr said a fellow member “flagged” me for God knows what. I had no nude photos on my site. None. Nothing sexual at all. I had pics of signs and animals and flowers and just all around goofy stuff because that is what I take photos of. Now, I do write heavily in the description area of my photos, explaining the who, what, where, when and why of the photograph. Sure, I used some salty language at times but, c’mon, nothing nobody hears or reads everyday on the Internet Tubes. Since I’m completely against censorship (being “marked as restricted” means hardly anyone can see your pics, so what’s the point of posting them on Flickr any longer?) I said to hell with Flickr and started my own photo blog (see link to it).

    So, yeah, Flickr sucks. Meanwhile, there’s many photo posters on Flickr who have the most outrageous, XXX shit you can imagine on there and they ain’t restricted.

    So I suggest all you Flickr members get out now because at some point you to will be flagged and restricted to your dismay and horror.

  26. Click on my name to go to the photo blog I created after being sent this “generated copy” e-mail I got from Flickr:

    From: Flickr Customer Care
    Subject: Marked as restricted

    Hello, DigitalHowie!

    This is an automatically generated copy of a warning we sent to your primary email address:

    Hello DigitalHowie,

    We’ve changed the safety level of your photostream to”restricted”.

    As per our Community Guidelines, content like that in your account is not considered “safe” for everyone to view. You may or may not be aware that Flickr has a Safe Search system. When people browse or search on Flickr, they can filter what they see based on a safety level that they are
    comfortable with – either Safe Search is on, set to moderate, or off. In order for Safe Search to work, we relying on *you* to filter your content appropriately. As you upload stuff to Flickr, you need to make sure that you’re applying appropriate filters (safe, moderate or restricted) and telling us what sort of content it is (photos, video, screenshots, art & illustration). If you don’t apply filters correctly, there’s a very good chance another member will let us know – in fact that’s why we’ve taken action today. (No need to be upset – it’s every member’s right to let us know if they ever feel uncomfortable. Yours too.)

    We want Flickr to be a place that everyone can enjoy. That means making sure that potentially offensive content is filtered from public, safe areas of the site. If you read our Community Guidelines, you’ll see the key points are: play nice, upload things that you have created yourself, and respect the fact that there are millions of people visiting Flickr who may not see the world the same way you do. Use your common sense about whether or not your content is suitable for a global, public audience. If the answer is no, you need to filter it from public view. You should also know that if we receive another report about your content or conduct, it’s very likely we’ll terminate your account.

    So, please take a moment to find out how to work with safety levels, use ‘em, and everybody’s happy!


  27. Martin says:

    I don’t agree with the guys photos being deleted but the guy is an annoying spammer and a troll.

    Look at the condescending way he emails Stuart Butterfield, I’m not surprised he is being called a dick using phrases like “Hello Stew” “What say, ole sport” “Ask Heather to fill you in”, the guy obviously thinks he is 100x as important than he actually is.

  28. J. E. Brown says:

    What’s really troubling is to see so many commenters standing up for a bully.

    Arbitrariness is not a “right.”
    It’s power’s way of saying “No Terms of Service bind us.”

    J. E. Brown

    {keywords: Administrative Bullying}

  29. emilio says:

    suggest e mailing the sponsors,same way letterman got heat for the sara palin/daughter/A rod issue,,,,,google derive income from adverts,pr from forums,,,public squares,,,photo publishing,etc,,,I was on yahoo,had 7k pts,,,otherwise enjoyed posting,,,have had 20 answers delete/viod for insipid crap,,,,reasoning ,or appealing to y!a hq in sunnyvale is like hollering at the tv set about its programming,protest where the supporting money comes from

  30. Tom Betz says:

    While it’s sad that Shepherd Johnson lost 1,000 photos, I’m surprised that anyone willing to entrust his only copy of anything to the “cloud” — even if he’s paying for the privilege — is capable of dressing himself every day without assistance.

    Learn three lessons from this:

    1) Keep backups of anything you store on someone else’s equipment on equipment belonging to you.

    2) Keep backups of anything you store on your own equipment on some other equipment belonging to you.

    3) Anything you write on someone else’s blog/web site/flickr stream/equipment is theirs to do with as they please.

    Having learned those three lessons, let us hope that Mr. Johnson soon learns to tie his own shoes.

  31. Amber Brix says:

    What Flickr did was an Obamanation!

  32. Matt says:

    Wow, very disturbing. I have so much content on Flickr. It makes me a little nervous about leaving so much into Flickr’s Power!

  33. Sport Weiß says:

    Your topic Flickr User Posts Comments Critical of Obama on the Official White House Photostream and Has His Comments Along With His Entire Flickrstream Deleted Without Warning | Thomas Hawk Digital Connection was very interesting and helped me so much when I found it on Monday searching for sport weiß

  34. Nerxual Oh says:

    Read the full thing and only few of the comments. I’m bit curious. Do you know this guy in real life or very well at all? And it is flickr’s site. They have the right to do what they please. But instead of being typical power hungry raging beasts, they do CARE about what is going on and the people within that site. About kicking the guy out without warning, yeah that is wrong. Livestream does that too, banning without warning and DevianART.

    As for people calling Johnson a troll, please look up the definition of a troll before using the word without fully knowing what it means. It just makes you look dumb in public chat :/

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