How to kill off a website with just one picture… UK voucher website VoucherDigg made the news for all the wrong reasons this week after it used a picture of missing child Madeleine McCann to advertize discount holidays to Portugal.
The original picture was taken just hours before the three year old child disappeared from her parents’ holiday apartment in Portugal in 2007, sparking a worldwide search which continues to this day.
To use such an image (with a subheading of ‘Best Value’ and a strapline of ‘Take the ones you loved and enjoy your life’) is not just crass in the extreme but also left the website wide open to potential lawsuits from two angles.
Both Madeleine’s family and the holiday firm involved (who said they had no contract with VoucherDigg to advertise their holidays) may have had reason to seek legal advice over issues of copyright and reputation.
The case highlights the risks of sourcing images for use on a website – if you wanted to destroy a website’s reputation overnight it is difficult to think of any better way than using a well recognized picture of a missing child to advertize family holidays – to the place she went missing.
It comes as no surprise that VoucherDigg has now closed down – their website displays a grovelling apology blaming the ‘mistake’ on their editing team and management overseas.
How Did It Happen?
There is a school of thought (conspiracy theorists?) that the ‘mistake’ may have been a deliberate action intended to artificially boost the rankings of VoucherDigg – it certainly gained huge amounts of publicity and inbound links for the site.
As a result, the site ranks in the top 15,000 websites in the UK (Alexa rankings) with nearly 500 sites linking in and with a Google Page Rank of 3 (I have not linked to the site to avoid adding to their totals). In theory this level of traffic and ranking would equate to a website worth thousands of dollars.
However, in practise, such a poor recent reputation and controversial articles about the site would likely make it worthless – for now at least. Perhaps it could be sold in the future when the uproar has died down but, by then, it would have plummeted in the rankings anyway so would be worth very little – and who would risk the bad publicity that buying it could entail?
A more likely explanation is that it was a genuine mistake – the specific Madeleine McCann picture used is available on thousands of websites all over the world and it appears on page 1 of a Google search for ‘holiday Portugal people/girl’.
My guess is that they just Googled for a family image in Portugal and this innocent looking photo of a little girl was the first one they saw. If the website designers were foreign it is not impossible that they did not recognize it.
The website was registered to a University student’s college address in the UK. Judging by the poor standard of English in the website apology it appears quite plausible that the registered owner was a foreign student, adding to the likelihood that they might not be aware of the photo’s significance.
This story highlights the importance of researching and verifying content before adding it to your website. Pictures of people are particularly risky if you did not take the picture yourself – model release should always be sought unless the picture is publicly available and of an adult and verifiably in the public eye.
It’s a wakeup call for website owners who might be tempted to take shortcuts and copy/paste images of people without caring where they come from or who they are.
The legal, copyright and ethical issues are all too obvious but common sense should also dictate that you don’t publish pictures of children without having explicit permission from their parents or a signed model release.