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Comment: Photobucket’s ‘ransom demand’ illustrates the perils of relying on free services

There’s an old maxim that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, meaning that anything which appears to be free will have a hidden cost somewhere.

In the tech sector, ‘free’ services generally operate using one of two different business models. The first is ad-funded, where – as the more recently-coined saying has it – you’re the product, not the customer. Some cheat the system by using ad-blockers, but most of us recognize that someone has to pay the bills, and accept exposure to ads as fair exchange for the benefit we receive.

The other model is the upsell, where you get a basic service free of charge but the company hopes to persuade you to pay for access to more features or storage. This again can be fair enough, but one company has just taken a particularly underhand approach to this …

As the BBC reports, Photobucket has just implemented a highly aggressive attempt at an upsell. Those who hosted photos on the site and then linked to them in things like eBay ads have just found all their photos replaced by a message demanding that they upgrade ‘to enable third-party hosting.’

Many users realised the change only when their embedded images were replaced by graphics saying their Photobucket accounts needed to be updated […]

The new policy has also affected historical social media posts, blogs and forums that were reliant on Photobucket. One of those affected is Stampboards, a forum with more than 17,000 members who discuss postage stamps and share images of them. Many of its pages are now filled with Photobucket’s upgrade demands instead of the photos of stamps it once showed.

Worse, the only upgrade available to enable hotlinking was a hugely expensive one, costing $400 a year – and with no monthly alternative to give people time to make other arrangements.

Users have taken to Twitter to call out the move as ‘blackmail.’ And as one user pointed out, even paying the $400 fee demanded offered no certainty that it would solve the problem.

“They are holding you to ransom,” Stampboard administrator, Glen Stephens, told members, advising them not to pay the fee. “You have no guarantee they will be in business […] in a month the way this disaster is rolling out.”

In general, you can be confident that a large company with a reputation to protect is unlikely to behave in this way. But even with companies like Google, there’s no guarantee that a free service will remain available over time. Wikipedia’s list of Google products has an entire section devoted to discontinued ones. Between 2011 and this year, Google has shuttered almost 100 services.

We fairly often get comments from readers who avoid using Google services for these reasons: either they distrust a company which views them as a product, or they aren’t confident that a service will remain operational.

My own view is that it’s fine to use free services, but foolish to rely on them. For example, I’m a great fan of Google Photos, as the apps automatically (and almost instantly) upload hi-res versions of all my photos from all my devices. It’s a great backup service, and a convenient way to access them across devices.

But I’m not confident that the service will remain viable indefinitely, so I would never use it as the only repository of my photos.

Of course, the same argument could be made about a paid service. Plenty of those have closed down over the years too. It’s just a lot more likely with a free one.

As always, the best advice is to adopt a belt-and-braces approach to anything involving precious data. Keep a local copy, plus local backups, and a cloud backup too. If you do that, the closure – or attempted blackmail – of a service will be a nuisance rather than a disaster.

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Avatar for Ben Lovejoy Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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