Flickr shows a little too much skin

The photo-sharing site hiccups and flashes porn to unsuspecting users. Now those customers are looking for answers.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
5 min read
Alida Saxon knew something was wrong last weekend when she saw that a thumbnail image on her blog that gets automatically fed from her Flickr page wasn't one of her own photos.

She clicked on the link for the image--a shot of a swimming pool--and was taken to her Flickr page, where she noticed that the pool image had mysteriously replaced one of her own shots.

"I thought my (Flickr) account had been hacked and some joker was swapping out images," the Springfield, Mass.-based artist wrote in an e-mail to CNET News.com. She went straight to the Flickr Help Forum and discovered that many other users were encountering the same problem of random photos replacing their photos on Flickr pages. Some of those new images, however, weren't as innocent as a swimming pool scene.

"You need to take the site offline--there is all kinds of freaking porn in my photostream now," Flickr user Daniel J. Weiss wrote in a posting to the forum, noting that family members, including children, look at his page. "I am sure there are many others in the same boat," he wrote. "This sucks."

Stewart Butterfield, co-founder of Flickr, said the company was taking the matter seriously and had completely resolved it after taking the site offline for several hours. "We are committed to preventing its reoccurrence or any similar problems in the future," he said in an e-mail.

Still, the issue, which Butterfield said was caused by server problems and affected an unknown number of Flickr users Saturday morning and sporadically on Monday, has some consumers and watchdog groups calling for more than just an apology.

One Flickr user, for example, suggested that the company might want to keep photos designated as "private," which ostensibly would include adult content, on a separate cache server from the public photos to avoid future mix-ups. Flickr users can keep their photos public, restrict access to a limited number of other Flickr users, or keep them private for only the Flickr user's viewing.

Google's Picasa Web Albums service lets people mark their albums as public or "unlisted," and Webshots, which is owned by CNET Networks, publisher of News.com, also allows people to keep photos public or private, but disallows "adult content."

"I was concerned because I don't want any of my visitors coming through and finding pictures of somebody's crotch, quite frankly," Saxon said. "And there is some particularly pornographic photography on Flickr. It should be stored in a different area on Flickr."

"There is some particularly pornographic photography on Flickr. It should be stored in a different area on Flickr."
--Alida Saxon, Flickr user

The hiccup can be traced to servers that store copies of Flickr photos "going berserk and instead of returning the correct image file when a particular photo was being requested, it just returning (sic) some random image that happened to be in the cache," according to the official Flickr blog.

In other words, some Flickr user pages suddenly sported random photos that didn't belong and that would change to other random unwelcome pictures when the page was refreshed, Flickr engineer Eric Costello wrote in the blog, saying, "We shamefacedly apologize for the inconvenience and the scare."

Flickr's problem is a reminder that privacy concerns are still an issue for Web 2.0 companies, and that users want to control the dissemination of their content, even if they are the ones posting it to the Web, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"It is quite possible that these types of incidents will trigger security breach notification laws, because if one user's content is improperly disclosed to another user, even on the same platform, it is basically a breach," he said. "It's like a cellular service provider mailing your cell phone statement to someone else in the wrong envelope."

After storms recently wreaked havoc on the schedules of JetBlue Airways, leaving passengers stranded in airports around the country, the airline came up with a Customer Bill of Rights that offers refunds, vouchers and cash for cancellations, overbookings and departure and ground delays.

But another consumer rights advocate said there's a big difference between the inconvenience and cost involved in disruptions at an airline compared with those at a hosted Web services provider.

"There would be a significant difference between a company that is providing a free service and one that is charging an arm and a leg for air travel," said Joe Ridout, a spokesman for the nonprofit consumer rights group Consumer Action. "The kind of apology we would expect from an airline might be too much to expect from someone who is providing a service that is free for most users."

That stance might do little to appease one paying Flickr Pro user, who said he was worried he would lose business as a result of the technical problems at Flickr. "I use my Flickr account as a portfolio (besides my real portfolio)...so most clients, potential clients and some Flickr users do not understand a pixilated porno picture," a user with the Flickr alias Cybergus wrote in the Flickr Help Forum. "If Flickr can't solve this quickly, then I want my money back...People with pro Flickr accounts pay for a particular service."

Flickr users can upload up to 100MB of photos each month for free. Flickr Pro users pay nearly $25 a year for the ability to upload an unlimited amount of photos each month.

When a company fails to offer a promised level of service, something more than a written apology in a blog is needed, particularly when customer reputation and privacy is threatened, said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

"I do think a company that experiences a snafu of this magnitude needs to compensate its customers in some way, perhaps by giving them a coupon that enables them to have a reduction in the cost of a service or an expansion of the size of files they allow at no cost," she said.

The glitch represents the latest in a series of incidents that have prompted complaints from Flickr users, some of whom were customers long before Yahoo acquired Flickr in 2005. Three weeks ago, Yahoo announced changes to the site, including one that will require all Flickr customers to log in using a Yahoo account, prompting outrage from veteran users.

Around the same time, according to Wired blog posting, Flickr users were also upset about Yahoo using Flickr photos for a new portal dedicated to the Wii game console without first getting permission from the Flickr users who took them.