What Google’s New Photo Storage Policy Means for You

Fewer dog and cat photos

Key Takeaways

  • Google Photos will no longer offer unlimited free storage under a new policy in June 2021.
  • The company has been offering users unlimited storage for high quality images since its launch in 2015.
  • In June, high quality photos will start counting toward a 15 GB limit for each Google account.
Low Angle View Of Young Woman Taking Selfie With Dog Through Smart Phone At Beach Against Clear Sky
Oleksiy Boyko / EyeEm / Getty Images

Google’s November announcement that it will stop offering unlimited photo storage next year may not affect many users right away, but that hasn’t stopped disappointed reactions from some who didn’t see it coming.

Google Photos, which stores images in the cloud, has become a favorite app in part for its ability to easily offload photos from our smartphones to free up space without a physical computer. But perhaps the biggest draw to the service—its unlimited free storage for "high" quality photos—is going away on June 1, 2021.

"In order to welcome even more of your memories and build Google Photos for the future, we are changing our unlimited High quality storage policy," wrote Shimrit Ben-Yair, the vice president of photos at Google, in a Nov. 11 blog post announcing the changes. She also mentioned that the change will allow the company to "keep pace with the growing demand for storage."

Growing Popularity

Google Photos has become wildly popular, with the company estimating that users have uploaded 4 trillion photos to the service. People upload a whopping 28 billion photos and videos each week.

According to open source and privacy advocate Stefano Maffulli, the senior director of digital marketing and community at Scality, Google is raising prices because it can. It "owns a significant chunk of power with consumers," he told Lifewire in an email.

This change of policy should start a conversation about what [we're] giving away when we trade for a service that is expensive to run.

"Google has a strong hold on its users, they won't go away," he says. "Also, their mission is accomplished: with free storage they've rapidly accumulated an incredible amount of data that they used to train their machine learning models to recognize things automatically. And they've prevented others from doing it, stifling competition."

What’s Changing

Since its launch in 2015, Google has allowed users to store an unlimited number of photos at the "high" quality setting for free. But on June 1, 2021, these types of photos will start counting toward the overall 15 GB limit already tied to each Google account. That limit includes not just photos, but things like documents and emails saved in Google Drive and Gmail.

The good news is this change probably won’t affect most Google Photos users right away. According to Google, more than 80 percent of the service’s users will be able to store about three more years of "memories." Those heavily relying on Google storage may see these changes sooner rather than later, though, such as Chromebook owners or those who use Google Photos’ automatic backup feature.

Google Photos on a smartphone showing how much storage someone has left

As far as price, Google Photos users won’t face the decision to pay for more storage until they reach the 15 GB limit on an account. When that happens, they’ll have to free up space themselves or pay for the Google One service that starts at $1.99 per month for 100 GB of storage. 

Alternatives to Paying

For avid Google users who don’t want to worry about storage for a long time, signing up for the paid Google One account after the 15 GB limit might be a good idea. But for those who can’t or don’t want to pay for this extra expense, there are some other options:

  • Check your Google storage quota and go through Google Photos, Gmail, and Google Drive to delete any unneeded files.
  • Make sure any photos saved before June are at "high" quality (not "original") so they don’t count toward the storage limit. Google already offers a personalized estimate for how much longer each user will be able to store photos based on their individual habits. It also plans to offer a new photo management tool in June.
  • Open another Google account to get another 15 GB of storage.
  • Transfer photos to a computer or an external hard drive.
  • Use another storage service like Flickr or Dropbox. However, almost all of these services place restrictions on free accounts by limiting the number of photos or overall storage.
  • Google has noted that its Pixel phones will be exempt from the new storage policy once it changes in June. However, The Verge reported that future Pixel models won’t provide that option.

Google has a strong hold on its users, they won't go away.

The bottom line is that this change shouldn’t drastically affect most Google Photos users at first. However, it raises questions about the principle of charging for a hugely popular, free service that so many have already made part of their daily routine. Google’s business model is already under scrutiny after the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed an antitrust lawsuit against the company in late October related to its search practices, though there’s no evidence that Google Photos is a factor.

"This change of policy should start a conversation about what we (people, citizens) are giving away when we trade for a service that is expensive to run, but gets offered for free," Maffulli says. "For a long time Google has been gaining ground against competitors because they could afford losing money on hosting emails or hosting infinite amounts of pictures."

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