Quick! Delete Your Instagram Account! (Or Don’t.)

December 19th, 2012 by Mattie Kenny

Instagram, the popular photo sharing app recently acquired by Facebook, will be changing its Terms of Service next year. This change in terms, slated to take effect January 16th, provoked a massive storm of criticism because of ambiguous language that some interpreted as allowing the company to sell the licensing to photos posted on the site to various advertisers.

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The language in question states that in using Instagram, “you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.”

Instagram's new terms before the backlash.This didn’t sit well with the app’s user base, who instantly began posting screenshots of the new terms as photo shares on the service and started up boycott initiatives. Even someone claiming affiliation with the hacker collective Anonymous called on its followers to ditch the service. A contingency of users has even urged others to switch to the Yahoo-owned photo sharing service, Flickr. (Long before this kerfluffle, Flickr wrote an official blog post saying the company “feel(s) very strongly that sharing online shouldn’t mean giving up rights to your photos.”)

What does all of this mean? Is a photo of your child going to become the new flagship image for the Gerber campaign? Probably not: in face of the uproar, the company produced clarifications within hours. Co-founder Kevin Systrom put out an official statement from the company apologizing for the confusion over the new terms, saying “it is not our intention to sell your photos. We are working on updated language in the terms to make sure this is clear.” Systrom also stressed that Instagram’s users are the owners of their own content, and that the company had no intent to use its users’ content in advertisement. The offending text from the new terms has been removed.

Instagram claims it never intended to use your photos in advertisements and they weren’t claiming ownership to license them out to major ad campaigns either. While I don’t think the language used in the new terms was as vague as some claims make it out to be, I don’t think Instagram had the ominous intent to freely sell your photos to advertisers. Instagram was merely trying to set up the legal grounds for promoted/sponsored posts in your photo feed. What’s really remarkable about this whole story, however, is the speed with which the whole thing took place. The terms were released, outrage spread across the web and social media sphere, and within hours, the head of the company was personally issuing a statement. This rapidity is becoming typical for doing business on the social web: the Hitman social media game that included misogynistic and crude content was pulled in just an hour, and in the infamous Susan G. Komen debacle, the company was forced to reverse its position just days after announcing their deeply unpopular decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood in the face of a massive online uproar. The fact that Instagram was so willing to clarify its position in plain language actually speaks to a greater transparency and user responsiveness in online business: the mistakes that provoke these bad PR storms are inevitable, so let’s hope the trend of immediate address continues.