Why you shouldn't be so dismissive about Instagram's new terms of service

Instagram announced upcoming changes to their terms of service.

There was some vocal disappointment yesterday. Today, there are two reactions: outrage or apathy.

Some people are being extremely dismissive of the changes, saying who cares if they use my boring pictures. Others say people are overrating their photography abilities and that no one wants their crappy photos. There's some truth there, and if you're fine with the changes, that is entirely your right. Personally, I'm pretty relaxed when it comes to privacy concerns. I use Facebook, Twitter, and Google services. If they blatantly misuse personal information I'm giving them for their service, they'll get in real trouble. If they use my information and interactions to better serve me ads or show me relevant interests, that's probably a good thing.

But there's a reason you shouldn't be so dismissive of Instagram's new terms of service, and I'll tell you why. It's the start of something potentially very dangerous. If you want to laugh it off as Instagram selling your blurry picture of a latte, you're missing the point. The point is that they can do so at their discretion and without any notice to you. Your face could show up in an ad for a dating service. Or possibly something far more embarrassing. Hope your significant other isn't served that ad.

Instagram and their parent company Facebook made this change for one simple reason: money. Smart people work for both of those companies, so they knew that this would cause some backlash. They probably assumed (maybe rightly so) that it will die down, most people will shrug it off and move on. Even if they lose 1 million members over this, so what? That's less than 1% of their user base.

That's exactly the problem.

What happens if this goes through without change? What if Twitter decides they like this model of advertising? Maybe their 200 million users will make a nice mine of quotes for companies to use to promote their product or disparage their competitors. Want your face and your words endorsing a product out of context?

That's potentially what Instagram is trying to do with their new terms. There's also this thing called right of publicity that is at odds with Instagram's new terms. By using their service, you're essentially waiving this right, but does that stand in court? (I'm not a lawyer.)

Another point brought up is the question of non-profits and news organizations. Using their images without permission goes against their policies. No big deal, right? Until TIME, The New Yorker, and others leave Instagram. These types of organizations give credibility to the service, just like they do with Twitter.





This is why it matters. It changes the landscape of social sharing. It's not about privacy, it's about rights. It leaves me with one question...

Was there really no other way? Why couldn't Instagram introduce a paid opt-out option to this section of the new terms? Call it Pro or Premium. Take my money and let me retain full rights to my photos.

What is the value of an average individual Instagram user? $5? $20? Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion, which is about $10/user. (The actual purchase price of Instagram after stock fluctuation settled around $730 million.) $20/user would double the value of Instagram to Facebook.

Even if only a small subset of users subscribe to this proposed Premium service, let's say 1 million people do. That's less than 1% of users, remember. That's still $20 million. Chump change for Facebook, maybe, but not negligible. Instagram can still license away the photos of free users in exchange for the service. Sure, some people would be still be pissed off, but it would at least provide users options.

Instagram could have handled this more appropriately.

Update: Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom published a blog post clarifying the new terms, as well as making a pledge to update the language and be more clear moving forward. Good on Instagram for listening to their users and taking it seriously. Shame on them for not being smarter about this from the start.


Andy Newman