The Day Instagram Almost Lost Its Innocence

Dec 18, 2012
Originally published on December 20, 2012 1:16 pm

The wildly popular photo-sharing site Instagram nearly caused a user revolt when it revamped its terms of service and privacy policy to suggest it could allow uploaded photos to be used in ads without users' permission.

The change — which was posted in dense legalese on its website Monday — sparked users to vow to stop posting their color-filtered, tilt-shifted photos to Instagram.

The New York Times first reported the story, and Internet outrage was swift. Disgruntled users were vocal; some called for boycotting the app and others have declared the death of Instagram.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Instagram softened its position.

"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. 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," writes Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom.

Systrom goes on:

"The language we proposed also raised question about whether your photos can be part of an advertisement. We do not have plans for anything like this and because of that we're going to remove the language that raised the question."

Here's the original offending paragraph from Instagram's new Terms of Service:

"Some or all of the Service may be supported by advertising revenue. To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, 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."

NPR's Steve Henn provides a good example of how it could have worked. Say you upload a photo to Instagram of you standing in front of a mountain holding some shiny new skis. That picture could have ended up as an ad for the mountain, the skis or a hot chocolate company. The new policy also seemed to say that even if you are not on Instagram your photo could end up as an ad if one of your friends uploads a shot of you. Henn notes that this advertising approach would very likely have run into some problems — especially in states like California where individuals have the right to control their image for commercial purposes.

A move to monetize should not be a huge surprise given that Facebook acquired Instagram earlier this year in a deal worth close to $1 billion. It makes sense that the publicly traded company wants to figure out how to justify the purchase to investors. The Atlantic notes that "the only way to get around the privacy problems inherent in advertising-supported social networks is to pay for services that we value."

Facebook users' content already shows up in advertising on the social network, but it lets users opt out if they don't want their photos to show up in ads.

The New York Times suggested that deleting your account was the only way to opt out. Angry users then flocked to social media sites — including Instagram's blog — threatening to walk before the new policy takes effect on Jan. 16.

However, Instagram said private accounts would remain so:

"If you set your photos to private, Instagram only shares your photos with the people you've approved to follow you. We hope that this simple control makes it easy for everyone to decide what level of privacy makes sense."

The hue and cry from Instagram users over the proposed changes stretched to even the photo-sharing site's biggest supporters: professional photographers. Ben Lowy, one of five photographers Time magazine hired to document the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy on its Instagram account, signaled his disappointment:

"Photography is my passion, my calling, and my means of livelihood. Now Instagram and Facebook want to take my hard earned imagery, and use it to generate income for themselves. What they have done is signal the end and failure of what could have been a revolutionary social media platform for visual communication. So for now, I must take a step back and reassess my place on Instagram."

Still more professional photographers, many of whom found the proposed terms exploitative, weighed in on Time's website earlier Tuesday.

"If Instagram does not change their terms to be more respectful of the needs of the professional photography community, then I will likely leave the platform once the new terms go into place," said Matt Eich. "That said, I believe that Instagram needs the professional community to remain involved in order to further validate their platform. Otherwise Instagram will end up as the graveyard for photographs of sunsets, cats and plates of food and the cool factor will be long gone."

For those who are still nervous despite Instagram's clarification, you can export your photos using Pipe or Instaport. And for those looking for Instagram alternatives, there's Twitter's photo filter and editing tool, Flickr's new app and Eyeem. The Huffington Post also compiled a list of more options.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Instagram was bought by Facebook earlier this year for close to $1 billion. At the time, the photo-sharing service was just two years old. And not only was Instagram not turning a profit, it wasn't earning any revenue. That is about to change. Yesterday, Instagram updated its privacy policy and terms of use to pave the way for more paid ads next year, but the move caused a kerfuffle. NPR's Steve Henn joins us now to explain what happened. And, Steve, what specific changes was Instagram proposing that got them to such a mess?

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Well, there were quite a few. First, Instagram said that starting next year, it would share all its user data with Facebook and vice versa. This would let advertisers target users more effectively and allow the company to collect sort of a more detailed picture of your interests and your friends.

But that was really just the beginning. What really seem to anger many Instagram users was a clause that said Instagram would begin to allow advertisers to pay it to display your name, your information and, critically, your photos as part of ads. And there were a couple pretty aggressive touches to the new terms of service. You know, Instagram's enormously popular with teenagers. There was a clause in the terms of service that said any teens who used Instagram acknowledged that their parents knew their images could end up in ads and their parents approved.

And then finally, Instagram added one more wrinkle, saying that it might not always tell you when the photo you were looking at was actually an ad.

BLOCK: Hah. And all of this spawned a huge backlash.

HENN: Not surprisingly, there were really loud complains. A number of early Instagram adopters deleted their accounts and blogged about it. Privacy advocates pointed out that using people's images and ads without paying for them or getting their consent could violate state publicity laws. And several services that back up Instagram photos reportedly had very busy days backing up and transferring images as many users said they were preparing to delete their accounts.

BLOCK: And now, some sort of change of heart from Instagram, right?

HENN: Well, that's right. This evening, Instagram backed down, or at least appeared to. In a blog post, the company's founder, Kevin Systrom, wrote, quote, "It's not our intention to sell your photos." And he added that Instagram didn't have any plans to feature users' photos in advertising either. So he said the company would remove that language from their new terms of service.

BLOCK: You know, Steve, looking at the language from Instagram tonight, it does seem that they're chalking this up to a big misunderstanding. They're saying the policy originally was misinterpreted, it may have been confusing. I don't know that that's really what happened here.

HENN: You know, I agree with you on that. I read the language pretty carefully. And as far as legalese goes, the changes in their terms of service, I thought, were very clear. The other interesting thing to note is that this fits a pattern that we've seen from Facebook in the past, which now owns Instagram. Facebook has become sort of infamous for pushing its privacy policies and its terms of service as far as possible, and then if there's a backlash from their users, backing down a little bit but not on everything.

And that's really what Instagram did tonight. They may not use your photos in ads, but they're still going to collect information about you, use it to target ads. They'll use information they've collected in ads, and they haven't said that they will clearly label all of those ads as ads.

BLOCK: NPR's Steve Henn. Steve, thanks so much.

HENN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.