Instagram Isn’t a Public Utility

Hey, look everybody: a free social network is trying to make money through ads. Let’s all throw rocks at them like we had no idea this was coming. Declan McCullagh of CNet is leading the charge:

Under the new policy, Facebook claims the perpetual right to license all public Instagram photos to companies or any other organization, including for advertising purposes, which would effectively transform the Web site into the world’s largest stock photo agency.

Actually, they aren’t doing this, and can’t, as actual lawyer Nilay Patel explains:

These phrases have very specific meanings — Instagram can’t sell your photos to anyone, for example. It simply doesn’t have permission. And Budweiser isn’t allowed crop your photo of a bar, slap a logo on it, and run it as an ad on Instagram — that would go well beyond “display” and into modification, which Instagram doesn’t have a license to do. (In fact, the old Instagram terms allowed for modification, but the new ones don’t — they actually got better for users in that regard.)

But don’t let this get in the way of your rage, David Meyer of ZDNet:

This, on the other hand, is exploitation, pure and simple. The blog post in which Instagram announced its new terms of service does not actually say what the new terms entail. Indeed, you’d have to click through, then understand the legalese, to parse what is actually going to be done with your content. This stuff is designed to go over people’s heads.

I don’t disagree that contemporary Terms of Service and Privacy Policy documents should be written in plain English. They concern everyone’s usage of the service, not just lawyers’. But, as legalese goes, Instagram’s updated Terms are actually pretty easy to understand, and fairly consistent with the Terms of other ad-supported social networks.

Which brings me neatly to Jordan Koschei’s excellent article which provided the title for this collection of links:

If you don’t read the terms of service before starting your legal relationship with a website, that’s fine. But you forfeit your ability to complain about the terms — the contract under whose authority you’ve voluntarily placed yourself — without sounding completely foolish.

Given the number of people who think that Instagram suddenly has a license to sell your 612 × 612 pixel images to stock photo companies, I’d say that’s a fair assessment. All of this is a reminder that you should want to pay for stuff, as Alexis Madrigal put it:

Truly, the only way to get around the privacy problems inherent in advertising-supported social networks is to pay for services that we value. It’s amazing what power we gain in becoming paying customers instead of the product being sold.

So what about all the people suddenly quitting Instagram? (Remember how they “quit” Twitter because of promoted tweets, and Facebook because of sponsored content, and Google+ because of Google’s privacy policy?) Tom Warren of The Verge thinks Flickr is going to see its renaissance:

With a nicely redesigned client and support for filters, Flickr is finally catching up to battle Instagram on the photo sharing front. And its dormant community of lapsed Pro users (who are required to pay a nominal fee each year) could be awakened after Instagram users realize they’re the product of advertisers.

Unless Flickr debuts a radically redesigned app, I doubt this. Instagram’s appeal for many was in its infinite-scrolling photo stream, with an easy double-tap every time you saw something you liked.

Update: Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom clarifies things:

Our intention in updating the terms was to communicate that we’d like to experiment with innovative advertising that feels appropriate on Instagram. Instead it was interpreted by many that we were going to sell your photos to others without any compensation. This is not true and it is our mistake that this language is confusing.

Translation: calm down and learn to read.