After Facebook acquired Instagram for a staggering $1 billion in cash and stock this past April, it was clear to most that the popular mobile photo-sharing service had just entered a new chapter in its commercial history. While the startup has spent the majority of the year focused on growing its user base, questions regarding its future monetization strategies inevitably bubbled to the surface in recent months.
Clearing up confusion
"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," the Instagram terms stated.
After these grievances went viral and everyone from prominent photojournalists to Hollywood celebrities threatened to delete their accounts, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom offered an immediate response in the hopes of defusing the public relations nightmare.
"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," Systrom wrote. "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."
A hollow gesture?
Systrom's follow-up post was initially received as a timely and welcome clarification for a pressing issue weighing on the minds of his customers. But upon further inspection, experts are charging the popular photo sharing service with errors of both commission and omission.
In Paul's estimation, the entire controversy may have been avoided if officials simply put out a more informative document the first time around. The initial privacy change announcement was brief and somewhat dismissive in nature. It also stuck to the potentially dangerous mold formed by Facebook, in which broad changes are made at a moment's notice and scaled back only slightly following consumer backlash.
There were also those who objected to the somewhat condescending tone of the document (and some of its related coverage), which seemed to highlight the layman's inability to translate legal language as the root cause of the controversy. But in some sections, there is every reason to raise an eyebrow.
As one privacy attorney told Reuters, Instagram is entering some "uncharted territory" with its latest slate of changes and seems to claim rights above and beyond what its social media peers have asked for in the past. Aside from the gradual expansion of advertising ambitions, the photo sharing service has restricted service alternatives and even limited legal recourse.
"Instagram has given people a pretty stark choice: Take it or leave, and if you leave it you've got to leave the service," Electronic Frontier Foundation senior staff attorney Kurt Opsahl told Reuters.
Perhaps more significantly, the new terms of service prohibit users from joining class action lawsuits unless they have mailed a written opt-out statement to Facebook headquarters 30 days prior to joining the photo sharing service. According to Reuters, that limited liability clause is not found in the contract language used by Google, Twitter or even Facebook itself.
Checks and balances
It remains to be seen how the vagaries contained in Instagram's contract language will be sorted out in public forums or federal courtrooms. In the meantime, data security advocates must see through the distractions and work toward viable solutions which can be suggested to social media sites and taught to end users.
According to eWeek, there are several reasons this case demands unique attention. First and foremost, terms and conditions are changing all the time. And even after language is set ahead of Instagram's self imposed January 16, 2013 deadline, chances are it will be updated several more times if strategies previously employed by Google and Facebook are any indicator.
Instagram's latest actions should also strip away any remaining illusions that the service would not attempt to monetize user data. According to eWeek, its parent company's public status now demands clear profit potential that would be hard to hit in the absence of advertising. And with so much money on the table, users must be particularly vigilant in anticipating and interpreting how companies handle their personal content.
Finally, consumers may be able to exert their power in a way that inspires more effective self-policing among online companies. In a radically simple plan offered up by ZDNet's Andrew Nusca, users and privacy advocates could use momentum from this latest data security flare-up to call for standard disclosure practices among the industry's biggest names.
With so much confusion stemming from an initial lack of transparency, formalizing the way sites present their terms and conditions can facilitate more thoughtful discussion and analysis of what they contain and how they differ. From there, both users and regulators can make more educated decisions on how to progress.
Data Security News from SimplySecurity.com by Trend Micro