FOIA Request for Emails Related to the Official Whitehouse Flickr Photostream

I submitted the following Freedom of Information Act request to the White House today via US Mail. I modeled it after another Whitehouse FOIA request that I found online here. I’ve sent two flickrmails now requesting information regarding the Offical Whitehouse photostream on Flickr to the Whitehouse account on Flickr and have received no response. Hopefully the Whitehouse, in the spirit of Obama’s oft-campaigned promise of transparency, will choose to provide the information requested based on this formal written request. I’m writing to try and discover any correspondence that may have taken place around Flickr’s decision to delete user Shepherd Johnson’s Flickr account after he posted comments critical of President Obama on the official Whitehouse photostream.

FOIA Officer Office of Administration
725 17th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20503


Fee benefit requested
Fee waiver requested
Expedited processing requested

Dear FOIA Officer:

Pursuant to the federal Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552, I request access to and copies of:

All email correspondence to and from representatives of the White House and Yahoo, Inc. regarding the establishment, service and maintenance of the Official Whitehouse photostream on Flickr, Yahoo Inc.’s photo sharing service. I would also like to receive the name and contact information of the primary individual responsible for the maintenance of this Flickr account.

The scope of this request is for documents created between January 20 and September 15, 2009.

I would like to receive the information in electronic format.

As a representative of the news media I am only required to pay for the direct cost of duplication after the first 100 pages.

Through this request, I am gathering information on a case of censorship involving the Flickr account deletion of Flickr user Shepherd Johnson who found his Flickr account deleted after posting comments critical of the President on the Official Whitehouse Flickrstream.

I am seeking this information as an independent blogger for dissemination to the general public.

Release of the information is in the public interest because it will contribute significantly to public understanding of the President’s use of social media as a communications strategy as well as how the White House handles critical commentary through social media channels.

I hope that as the President’s office, in the spirit of Obama’s oft-campaigned promise of transparency, will see fit to honor this information request.

If my request is denied in whole or part, I ask that you justify all deletions by reference to specific exemptions of the act. I will also expect you to release all segregable portions of otherwise exempt material. I, of course, reserve the right to appeal your decision to withhold any information or to deny a waiver of fees.

As I am making this request as a journalist and this information is of timely value, I would appreciate your communicating with me by telephone, rather than by mail, if you have questions regarding this request.

Please provide expedited processing of this request which concerns a matter of urgency.

I look forward to your reply within 20 business days, as the statute requires.

Thank you for your assistance.


Thomas Hawk

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.