Facebook's popular online Photoshop-like sharing app, Instagram, released updated terms of service on Dec. 17 that said in a 5,160-word statement that the service might use subscribers' photos in advertising without the user's consent and any sort of compensation.
Believing that Instagram and Facebook were changing the rules without user input, the backlash from users and non-users alike was swift all through the social networks, especially Facebook. Thousands of Facebook members threatened to opt out of the service, many using language not appropriate for general consumption.
The new terms were supposed to go into effect on Jan. 16. At it stands now, however, the language the company used Dec. 17 will be changed in an effort to save face.
Instagram Back-Pedals to Clarify Policy
Back-pedaling Instagram sent a clarification to subscribers on Dec. 18, but damage to the brand may already be done.
Instagram stated in the blog post that it does not intend to sell a user’s photos and that users still retain all rights to their content.
“It was interpreted by many that we were going to sell your photos to others without any compensation," Instagram said. "This is not true and it is our mistake that this language is confusing. To be clear: It is not our intention to sell your photos. We are working on updated language in the terms to make sure this is clear.”
That's the statement, verbatim. It's not confusing, and not likely to be misunderstood. It's not even legalese.
The company also said it does not plan to make users' photos part of advertisements. “We do not have plans for anything like this, and because of that we’re going to remove the language that raised the question.” Instagram might have added: "At this time, that is," because that's what this statement sounds like.
Furthermore, Instagram said, “Instagram users own their content, and Instagram does not claim any ownership rights over your photos. Nothing about this has changed. We respect that there are creative artists and hobbyists alike that pour their heart into creating beautiful photos, and we respect that your photos are your photos. Period.”
Company Does Not Specifically State It Won't Sell Photos
However, please note that Instagram did not specifically say it will never sell users' photos. It said it "is not our intention" to sell users' photos -- at this time, anyway.
"A clarification of ToS and tardy acknowledgement of user dissatisfaction won’t overcome overwhelming wave of anti-Instagram sentiment," one Twitter user wrote. "Spoiler Alert: Instagram already sold all your photos. For a billion dollars," wrote another.
He was referring to the fact that Facebook bought the 12-person, San Francisco-based Instagram for $1 billion earlier this year. The deal closed in September.
Stay tuned. This story may open a new chapter in Internet usage, with users becoming a lot more intentional about with whom they open service relationships -- paid for or free.
eWEEK's take on this: First of all, anybody who doesn't realize that social networks make their money by aggregating user information and selling it to advertisers had better wake up and get with it. It's a fact of life that using a free service like Instagram makes you the product, not the customer, but a lot of people still don't know that.
Secondly, read the agreements on which you decide to click "OK." Few people do because they are ponderous, and that's always been the problem. However, when a few people do read them -- as they did Dec. 17 in the Instagram case -- and then start a Twitter and Facebook stampede that becomes viral in a matter of hours, then more casual users begin paying attention.
"Companies like this (Instagram and Facebook) really had better become more transparent about what they're doing," SpiderOak CEO Ethan Oberman told eWEEK. San Francisco-based SpiderOak provides cloud-based backup, synchronization and sharing services to enterprises. Its employees have no insight or access to customer data and passwords in the system.
"However, sometimes when they do try to be transparent about what they're doing (especially after the fact), then this is kind of stuff that happens. But these guys (Instagram) are floating trial balloons on data (photos) that's much more visual and easier to track. The red flag I see is this: What are they doing with the data that's not as visible and much easier to hide, in order to earn revenue from the user?" Oberman said.
Opt-In Policy Might Be Best Policy
Oberman believes that for social networks and other Web-based services an opt-in policy might be the best avenue for improved transparency.
"Look, give the the user an option: 'Pay us $25 a year, and we won't sell your data. Otherwise, you give us the right to actually sell your information.' I would do it in a heartbeat.
"What this does is it helps the end user understand what they're doing and why they're doing it. Then I have to make a choice. By making that choice, I am saying, 'OK, I am choosing the free route, and I know what I'm getting for it,'" Oberman said.
There's no question that the Internet and many of its competing services (social networks, retail businesses, photo services like Instagram, Picasa, Shutterfly, and Flickr and many others) have spoiled users with "free" services that they believe are actually free.
But this incident, as well as well-publicized previous privacy problems with Facebook and Google, should go a long way toward exposing the truth about free lunches: There aren't any, no matter what kind of free deal you think you're getting.