Billions of Hotlinked Images Broken, by Photobucket

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Since 2003, the popular photo hosting service Photobucket has been letting users upload and host images for free on their servers. They have over 10 billion images stored by 100 million registered users. But now they’re going to start charging, and that means billions of images around the Web are now broken.

If you’re an avid Photobucket user, you woke up to a nasty surprise this past week: the photo storage and hosting service changed their terms, breaking billions of images online in one fell swoop, without so much as a courtesy notice.

Photobucket has been allowing free users to host and link to images on its servers since 2003. If you wanted to host your photos on Photobucket and display them on some 3rd party site (also known as hotlinking) you could do that without being a paying member. This is an extremely useful—not to mention bandwidth-intensive—service to offer, and it’s one of the reasons Photobucket has managed to amass over 10 billion photos uploaded to its servers by over 100 million users.

But starting last week, the company changed its terms and membership structure, and what once was free will now cost users a whopping US$400 (RM1850) per year. Suddenly, billions of images Photobucket users had hotlinked online no longer showed up. Entire forum threads, like this one found the photo blog by PetaPixel, are now devoid of images.

Instead, you have this graphic on display… over and over:

Hotlinking (AKA inline linking) is when someone takes an image file hosted on a server and embeds it on a different webpage elsewhere. Since the new webpage continuously requests the file from the original source server, it saps the server owner’s bandwidth (and storage space).

Photobucket allowed hotlinking photos uploaded to and stored on its servers for a long time. This was their business model, and they made money from ads on their own site, which users would be exposed to when they went to upload content.

Unfortunately for Photobucket users, things are about to change in a big way as of June 26th. Now the service is rolling out a $399 per year subscription fee for those who want to hotlink images from Photobucket’s servers to display elsewhere. That means that billions of images across the Web now display an error message instead of the image in question.

Just look at this forum thread to see how Photobucket users are reacting to this change. The move has sparked fury from users, who have relied on the service for years and now feel “blackmailed” into paying the subscription fee.

It’s not a huge surprise to see a decision like this. Advertising revenues are declining for publishers, and the costs of servers to host 10 billion images are surely incredibly high (especially when requests are made for them from all over the Web). While other free services remain, it seems fairly likely that others will follow suit and start charging for hosting files too.