A huge photo site you’ve never heard of has destroyed parts of the internet

ddo skitch thumbnail photoshopped

The INSIDER Summary

  • Photobucket is charging its users $400 to use their own pictures elsewhere on the web. 
  • Previously, it was free.
  • The photo site has replaced those images with ugly placeholders, which make some websites unusable and look terrible.
  • The site’s longtime userbase is furious at the sudden change and people are claiming that it’s destroyed the look of websites all over the internet.

Some websites play an important role on the internet. Without them, parts of the web would be broken. And one of those sites is turning its back to the millions of people it serves.

In June, the image-hosting service Photobucket told its users that they’d have to pay $400 per year for their images to show up on other websites. Previously, it was free. In the meantime, their images are replaced with ugly placeholders asking users to pay up.

People are saying that it’s destroyed the design of many websites and made them unusable.

Brenda Crowell, for example, has been using the Photobucket service for more than a decade to run a couple of blogging sites for Dungeons and Dragons Online players. One of her pages that links out to other bloggers in her network is completely unreadable.

“Now you just see a bunch of images that all look identical,” Crowell told INSIDER. “You don’t know what links they go to.”

Photobucket fills a basic and important function: It gets images on the internet. And before now, it was free.

Photobucket works like other image-hosting sites. Users upload images to the site and can post them anywhere else on the internet, like Reddit, web forums, or individual blogs — a practice called “third party hosting.”

It’s particularly popular for eBay, which has a userbase of people who run small businesses and need to organize a lot of photos of the things they sell.

The only way to continue using third-party hosting would be to subscribe to Photobucket’s P500 plan, which costs $399 per year.

With the new change, the images are broken elsewhere on the web. Instead of the image uploaded by users, a low-resolution warning shows up instead. This is what it looks like:

photobucket warning

The replacement image has rendered some sites unreadable, especially because the dimensions aren’t the same as the original image files.

Here’s what part of the FAQ page on one of  Crowell’s sites looks like now:

photobucket dd blogger faq page

It’s not exactly a good web experience.

The change hits smaller webites the hardest — but its effects are everywhere.

In the past few years, giant “platforms” have taken over the web. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, Amazon, and the like are being used for things that, in another era of the internet, would go on individual websites, blogs, and specialized shopping sites.

Those sites let you upload photos on their platform pretty easily. But for the web’s holdouts, uploading an image can be tricky. It’s technically a bit more challenging for people who code their own websites, and the file sizes of images mean they’re a heavier load on servers, so they can cost more money to host.

For those reasons, Photobucket — first launched in 2003 — played an important role on the web. Anyone could upload an image, organize them on the site, and include those images on their own website with third party hosting.

And for the most part, it was free.

Angela Fulcher, a representative for Photobucket, told INSIDER that the company’s business model “has historically been based on onsite and mobile advertising” with a paid subscription model first introduced in 2014. Those subscriptions allowed users to buy more storage space; they didn’t limit how people could use their images.

But the new restrictions on third-party hosting have consequences that are rippling around the web.

“I’ve seen the effects of Photobucket’s new policies all over social media, forums and bulletin boards, eBay — all kinds of sites, really,” Crowell said.

Photobucket users say the P500 plan came out of nowhere.

Critics of the change say that it caught them by surprise. In late June, Photobucket users had their images disabled and were told they needed to pay for third party hosting to work by subscribing to the plan. It’s been likened to a demand for “ransom” and “blackmail.”

Crowell said she was shocked when she realized what was happening to her sites.

“I first thought it must be some kind of mistake or that maybe Photobucket was doing maintenance,” Crowell told INSIDER in an email. “[I was] dumbfounded, flabbergasted, irate, f—ing pissed off, especially since I received no notice of the change whatsoever from Photobucket.”

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