Flickr “Not Currently Working” on Account Restore Feature After Users Suffer Losses of Thousands of Photos

Flickr "Not Currently Working" on Account Restore Feature After Users Suffer Losses of Thousands of Photos

With respect to your posting of the TV screengrab, I don’t think it was a mistake to delete it, but I do think it was (and is) a mistake to not have a mechanism to restore that kind of deletion.
– Stewart Butterfield, Flickr Founder and Former Flickr Chief, May 19, 2007

"I’m afraid this isn’t the result of some work we’re doing on a restore feature… I’m sorry to disappoint that it’s not the result of a feature. We have heard your feedback about that here, and in the past, and we know it is on some people’s wish list, but it’s not something that we are working on currently."
– Zack Shephard, Flickr Staffer, August 7, 2009

Over two years ago Flickr Founder and former Chief Stewart Butterfield publicly posted that it was a "mistake" for Flickr not to have a mechanism to restore photos that had been deleted on Flickr. He made the comment in response to a photograph of mine that Flickr had censored that he said was not a mistake, adding though that not having a restore photo capability more broadly was in fact a "mistake" at Flickr.

Last week there were several stories having to do with account deletions at Flickr. In one case a hacker had gotten a hold of a Flickr users credentials and deleted over 3,000 photos in a user’s photostream. Another case involved a professional photographer who had his entire stream nuked after being informed by Flickr that the reason for this was that he was posting other people’s photos (something the photographer, who had all of his images watermarked with his own copyright info, denies). Yet another case involved a Flickr user who apparently had some of his Flickr photos posted in an internet forum without containing links back to Flickr. In this last case Flickr agreed that it looked like "maybe the deletion wasn’t the right course of action," adding that the user was "lucky" that they were able to catch the account deletion due to a backlog of account deletion processings and then restoring his account and giving him four free years of Pro account status.

There have been other even higher profile cases of Flickr account deletion as well. Earlier this year, Flickr nuked user Shephard Johnson’s entire photostream and account after he posted comments critical of President Obama on the official White House photostream. In that case Johnson lost about 1,200 photos of his, many of them which were not backed up. Johnson was offered a free Flickr Pro account after the fiasco but like previous users was told that Flickr could not restore his account.

As it stands now when a user’s photostream is deleted at Flickr it is gone. Erased. Permanently and irrevocably. Many Flickr users are appreciably nervous about this fact, especially after reading stories about hackers infiltrating flickr accounts or when overzealous underlings in the Flickr Censorship Division seem to overreact to minor Flickr Community Guidelines violations by nuking users’ photostreams.

When Flickr nukes a user’s photostream, it’s not just the users’ photos that are gone. It’s all of the rich, important and vibrant social metadata around the photos that are gone with it. I’ve had many very long engaging conversations around my and others photos on the site. When Flickr nukes your stream those all get erased from existence.

Flickr user Saint Seminole summed up the problem fairly succiently:

"So personally, I wouldn’t be worried about losing the photos themselves. I’d be worried about losing all the work I’d put in the site over the past few years. All those cross-photo links, all the links from my blogs and others back to my flickr photos, all the website links I have directing people to my Flickr sets, my collections, my tag groupings, my archive date links, and on and on.

All the meticulous placing of photos on the Flickr map, in hundreds of cities and several countries…

This is why I personally would be worried about an accidental deletion, not the losing of photo files. This certainly seems like it should be a *MUCH* higher priority than redesigning "post now" buttons, etc. For Flickr, this should be a number one priority to protect its reputation…"

The answer to all of these concerns is rather simple really. Rather than permanently deleting accounts when Flickr feels that a user has crossed them, they could instead simply convert the account to a private account on Flickr making the stream invisible to everyone in the Flickrverse except the individual user. By locking the account down this way Flickr would be able to remove whatever it is that they find offensive while still allowing the user the ability to download photos of theirs that are not backed up or allowing Flickr to restore accounts where their censors make mistakes or overreact to minor guidelines.

Many Flickr users put tens, hundreds, in some cases even thousands of hours into building their flickr photostreams. More than just their time and energy though, what so many are offering up through Flickr is their art. Something that carries a far greater emotional cost than simply time or money. And all of these people have to live with the knowledge that their entire creative endeavors on Flickr could be blotted away with the 2 second push of a button. So it was very disappointing yesterday reading more than two years after Flickr Chief Stewart Butterfield called the inability to restore photos on Flickr a "mistake," that Flickr still today is not working on a mechanism to restore deleted photos. What bothers me as much if not more than the fact that Flickr won’t develop this important feature is that they refuse to even provide their reasoning for why they will not.

I have a hard time believing that the reasons why Flickr will not offer this sort of safety net have anything to do with engineering resources. Recently Flickr changed all the delete buttons on the site red. They also went to the trouble to personally code the "about Flickr" staff page so that it shows me, Thomas Hawk a single user, a different staff than it shows every other user. How is it that Flickr seems to have the staff resources to do these relatively insignificant coding projects, and yet they don’t have the resources to code a sane and reasonable restore feature for bad account deletions?

I’m not quite sure what the answer is to getting Flickr to agree to this important safety net. They basically have a monopoly on the community photo sharing space at present and can pretty much get away with doing anything that they feel like with impunity no matter how much it upsets their users. And that’s too bad.

Update: After refusing to address the issue of why Flickr won’t commit to a reasonable, responsible and sane approach to account deletion recovery, as is typical, Flickr staff has returned with a non-answer and locked the thread to avoid future criticism against them.

From Flickr Staffer Zack Shephard: “Since the OPs issue has been resolved I’m going to close this down. We have left it open because there was obviously some concern about this and we wanted to let discussion keep going. There is a lot of food for thought here and thank you all for letting us know about your concerns. This is still the help forum though and because the OPs issue is resolved I think it’s time to move on to the next.” And just like that another conversation critical of Flickr is killed.

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19 comments on “Flickr “Not Currently Working” on Account Restore Feature After Users Suffer Losses of Thousands of Photos
  1. elinesca says:

    Hi Thomas!
    Great post – makes me nervous though!! :(

    Why are they showing you a different “staff” page than the rest of us..? Do you have to be logged in to see the staff page?

  2. Thomas Hawk says:

    Why are they showing you a different “staff” page than the rest of us..? Do you have to be logged in to see the staff page?

    Hey Elinesca. I’m not sure why they are showing a different staff page to me than the rest of the flickrverse. It’s something that they have in fact coded though. I’ve asked them multiple times about this but they won’t address it. It’s likely just more of a little “fuck you” from them to me personally that they get a laugh out of.

    My point is though that if they have time to be coding these little personal projects into Flickr, then they certainly ought to have time to code a reasonable, responsible and sane approach to account deletion.

  3. Omsel says:

    Now i am curious if Zoomrrr has an account restore capability…..

  4. Alan Morris says:

    Is it time to look for alternative sites to share photos? It is crazy to truat Flickr with all your photos if there is no security that they are safe from deletion.

  5. Celine says:

    @Omsel: I don’t know if Zooomr has an account restore capability, but they are far less apt to censor anyone, so it’s much less likely to be needed.

    As for Flickr, I rely on them to host my photoblog photos, and it scares me that they could so easily wipe out my account — something I pay for — without any warning. If Zooomr would get stable enough, I’d happily use it for hosting (again) and forget Flickr.

  6. Mike says:

    This is one of the reasons that I won’t entrust my photos to Flickr, and will probably let my pro account status lapse. I had considered using Flickr to host my photos, and just re-display them on my own photo site. The risk of losing access to them was too high, and I now host all my photos myself, occasionally copying some to my Flickr account.

    I figure that if I mess up and delete my photo site, at least I can restore. Who knows where everything on my Flickr account may go.

    P.S. As an ex-software engineer, coding a deleted flag into accounts and photos would be trivial. It would then be easy to undelete accounts/photos.

  7. Omsel says:

    Can you imagine a server failing on Flickr and losing a zillion pics?…it would be a death blow to Flickr…of course they are backed up and can be restored. Now any logic would determine their incapability is nothing more than a political crock of shit.

    Yes i would expect Zoom to be more liberal as people who live in glass houses… … yet Flick is gigantic in comparrison and must please Mr & Ms Peabody so they can’t afford that they are lessthan perfect and made such a blunder.

    Nothing is perfect, yet back on subject, why should these people endure such an insulting tirate from a famous bad photog on a site they truely love and work for? If i ran Flick i would be on the next flight to Van and kick his butt for real,real good…..

  8. Thomas Hawk says:

    Omsel. I believe that Zooomr does have the ability to restore deleted accounts. Then again Zooomr doesn’t have a Censorship Division that is in the business of deleting user accounts willy nilly, so as Celine mentioned, I’m not really sure at least that part is an issue. I’m personally not aware of a single person who has ever had their account terminated by Zooomr staff.

    This isn’t really about Zooomr though, it’s about Flickr.

  9. Omsel says:

    Thomas i was just checking of course and your site is more counter culture so we can’t expect the same issues. Flickr was also very liberal in its begginings and remains so within limits today. Having been in and out since its start i really have never seen someone deleted unfairly. Many claim this is so but case in hand….if i spewed insults at you via mail on Zoom, can you honestly say you wouldn’t nail that delete button?

  10. Thomas Hawk says:

    .if i spewed insults at you via mail on Zoom, can you honestly say you wouldn’t nail that delete button?

    Yes, Omsel, I can say that if you spewed insults at me via mail on Zooomr that I honestly would not delete your account. But again, this conversation really isn’t about Zooomr, it’s about Flickr.

    Personally I’m a big proponent of freedom of speech.

  11. Jason says:

    I have a hard time believing that the reasons why Flickr will not offer this sort of safety net have anything to do with engineering resources.

    I don’t think the problem is engineering resources, but storage resources to keep account backups. A couple months ago when Flickr started doing real-time stats for pro users, they had to delete everyone’s all-time referral information from the servers. They admitted that they just didn’t have the processing and storage capacity for both features — and in fact it was a bit of a debacle because they didn’t realize that they were so limited on storage until they turned on the real-time code. I think that Yahoo has drastically limited the machine resources available to Flickr.

  12. Thomas Hawk says:

    Jason, they don’t need to back up everyone’s accounts. They just need to back up the accounts of those whose their Censorship Division decides to delete. It would be very simple for them to simply change the account to private, inform the user of the pending deletion, and in a week actually delete the account.

    This would give them an opportunity to allow the user to object or appeal the deletion as well as reverse any “mistakes” on their part. it would also give a user and opportunity to retrieve any unbacked up photos that might exist in their stream prior to Flickr permanently and irrevocably erasing it when they nuke it.

    Doing this would involve no additional storage and no additional engineering resources. It’s not that Flickr cannot do this. It is that they will not do this.

  13. They don’t even need to back-up deleted accounts.

    In there database, then need to set an “invisible” variable. Then when the server comes across their pictures, posts, and comments, they will not be shown if the invisible variable is set.

    If they delete by mistake, they can unset the variable and everything is back to normal.

    If something is set to invisible for a month or so, THEN delete it.

    I can’t imagine this would be that hard to code.

    Oh wait, Yahoo/Flickr laid off their coders on April and hired more censors. Oops.

  14. elinesca says:

    Have you posted a screenshot of what you see in your stream? I just don’t get this – what do you see when you log out? The staff page is publicly available, so they’ve achieved nothing at all by this. Maybe it’s a cashed version you’re seeing?

  15. elinesca says:

    By the way, Flickr DOES need to back up every account. We’re paying for a service that need to be restored should something happen.

    In any case, Zooomr acts the opposite – they don’t have the functionality to allow you to delete your account. Almost like living forever…. :) Maybe that’s why Zoomr staff can’t delete accounts…

    (not getting political, just couldn’t resist…:)

  16. vicky says:

    This is my main concern about Flickr, losing an account through a mistake or from something that could be addressed.
    I really hope that it’s a concern that they start addressing soon because for many of us it’s our personal photo album as well as a social network.