Getty Images is a cultural treasure. Not only does it aggregate the latest images of newsmakers in politics and culture, it maintains a huge archive of historical pictures as well. Of course, being a for profit company, Getty Images has always asked for compensation when their intellectual property was used, limiting the distribution of these images to entities with the financial capability of paying. So, it is understandable that Getty Images’ announcement in the beginning of March 2014 that they would open their image collection royalty-free to non-commercial use over the Internet engendered a lot of excitement.
However, the EFF (Electronic Freedom Frontier) has made it clear that, like many other things offered for “free” over the Internet, Getty Images’ image initiative does come with a caveat, collection of data with privacy implications. At issue here is the technology Getty Images is using to distribute their images. Instead of allowing copies of the images to be included incline with the web page as is typical, Getty Images requires the use of code which downloads a copy of the image from Getty Images’ servers. As is true with many other companies and technologies on the Internet, the EFF notes that this opens up a connection from the user’s computer to a third party and allows the collection of user information such as “your IP address and the exact time of the request; information about the web browser you’re using, your browser’s version, your operating system, processor information, language settings, and other data; the URL of the website you’re coming from; and sometimes tracking cookies,” (EFF).
To be sure, as the EFF itself points out, these sorts of technical arrangements allowing potentially sensitive user data to be collected by third parties over the web is hardly unique. In 2010, the Wall Street Journal ran a ground breaking series of articles detailing many of these practices. These articles were one of the catalysts behind the US FTC (Federal Trade Commission) activity around their Do Not Track initiative, which looks to implement technical means for web users to opt out of services which track them online.
According to the New York Times, Getty Images is implementing this system in order to allow users to click on the pictures and present them an opportunity to purchase higher resolution of the image and perhaps supply advertising around the image. We really cannot fault Getty Images for using what seem to be industry standard practices in trying to come up with a business model to satisfy demand for their content to be made “free.” In the end, the Internet industry needs to come up with better methodologies to make sure that “free to consumer” does not endanger consumer privacy.