Last night we watched Anna Richardson’s Channel 4 documentary, Revenge Porn. The programme was about the horrid act of putting explicit photos of your ex online so that other people can oggle them – and often heinously insult them, whilst the victim is powerless to do anything about it.

More about revenge porn another time – one small thing that stood out to me was her reaction when some photos of her were removed from a website – or rather, a specific web page.

In order to try to identify with the victims, Richardson took photos of herself and posted them to a popular site for this sort of content. She obscured her face, and obviously she was the one submitting them so she didn’t have the feelings of betrayl and vunerability that real victims have – but still she opened herself up to a lot of abuse. Nasty abuse.

She then went to speak to someone who campaigns against sites like these and when she went to show him the pictures she was shocked to see they’d been removed from the web page they’d previously featured on. This doesn’t mean they were removed from the site – or the servers – just that, from a technical point of view – they were no longer displayed on that page.

I can’t quote her reaction exactly but there were expressions such as “where have they gone?”, “well, where are they now?”. To which she was told they’d probably be “circulating” the web. Suddenly things seemed more out of control for her because she didn’t know where her photos were anymore.

And now I get to the point of this blog post – after being removed from that particular web page they were not necessarily circulating any more than they were before. The words used in the programme – and I know it’s just semantics – seemed to suggest that some 6×4 prints which had previously been framed and put on a particular wall, had now been taken down , reframed and put on another mystery wall. But that’s not how digital files work. They are easily copied – and frequently are. 

Wasn’t that one of the selling points of “digital”? That you could copy it with no loss of quality? Whereas if you copied a cassette again and again the final child copy was pretty fuzzy?

As soon as Anna Richardson uploaded her photos to that website, they could be circulating anywhere. People might have saved them or screen shot them (not actually a digital copy but still a re-creation of a new file with the same content). The site might syndicate it’s content to other websites or send copies to other services.

Often websites will make copies of a photo when it’s uploaded because the site needs a small version for a clickable thumbnail, and then a main display version and then maybe a bigger version that displays when someone clicks on it to enlarge it. Quite often uploading a photo to the web can mean it’s duplicated 2 or 3 or more times. (This is because images of the right size need to be used to help page load times – loading a huge photo to act as a tiny little thumbnail link would take longer than needsbe).

Meanwhile, deleting a photo from a site doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have deleted every copy of it from everywhere. Lots of well built sites will delete all versions when a master is deleted because they don’t want to waste the disk space – but it’s not a given. Google can also cache images and so display them for a while even though the original has been deleted.

So when you upload an image to the web – just be sure you’re happy for it to leave your hands. Because you won’t know every server it’s stored on and you won’t be able to know you’ve taken them all down another day.