Flickr user Shepherd Johnson was browsing the official White House photostream one night when he decided to post a politically-charged comment. Then another, then another. Soon, without warning, Yahoo's photo-sharing service deleted his account, complete with 1,200 pictures.
An unrepentant Yahoo won't say what, exactly, Johnson did wrong. His comments were about Barack Obama's support of a bill allowing the government to suppress torture photos. They were attached to seemingly relevant images from the president's recent trip to Cairo to ring in a new era of U.S.-Middle Eastern relations.
"I thought, this is an opportunity I can use to let the administration know how I feel about some of its policies," Johnson told us in a phone interview.
The Virginia man's initial 10 or so comments, which went up Wednesday night, were deleted without explanation by Friday. That night, Johnson posted roughly ten more to different White House photos, this time linking in another Flickr user's Abu Ghraib picture, as allowed by Flickr's comment formatting (see Johnson's reproduction of his comment, left, taken from his post to freedom-of-information hub Cryptome).
In the midst of this second round of commenting, Johnson found his account was gone. There had been no warning of any sort from Yahoo, he said. Johnson would later work his way up Flickr's customer service tree, eventually leaving a message for the vice president of customer service and other bigwigs. He even left a message for Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz — a noted fan of frank discourse — on Bartz's home answering machine.
Johnson, who lives outside Richmond, still has no answers. More crucially, he also doesn't have access to any of the 1,200 pictures he uploaded to Flickr under his paid "Pro" membership. Many of the pics, he said, were "completely irretrievable — I didn't back them up on any disks, I just spur-of-the-moment loaded it up and deleted the flash" memory originals.
Asked about all this, Yahoo issued us a statement (see below) saying its policies prevented it from discussing Johnson's account and pointing us to Flickr's community guidelines.
But if the company expects people to move their data to its servers, via sites like Flickr and Yahoo Mail, it's going to have to do better than that. Users won't feel safe moving their data into Yahoo's "cloud" if it can vanish without a trace with no warning.
Similarly, Flickr's user base of photographers is notoriously sensitive to any hint of censorship, so the company would be well-advised to come up with a coherent explanation for why the most powerful man in the world needs to be so ruthlessly protected against a slightly aggressive internet commenter. Where's Carol Bartz's straight talk when you need it?
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: http://www.flickr.com/guidelines.gne