Making sense of the Instagram controversy
December 18, 2012
Nothing spreads on the internet like outrage. For evidence, look no further than today's Instagram kerfuffle. The Facebook-owned company announced new terms of service, which allow it to capitalize on you and your photos. Unsurprising as the terms are, the backlash caught Instagram's attention, and the company responded. Is there still cause for concern?
Coming to terms
What's so outrageous about these terms? For starters, they let Instagram use your photos in advertisements (familiar territory for any Facebook user). These advertisements don't have to be labelled as advertisements. The terms also allow Instagram to share your images' metadata (like location) and sell it to advertisers.
There are two warring factions here. On one side, Instagram is a business, and it wants to capitalize on the app's millions of users. The best way to do that is to sell their data to advertisers. On the other side, Instagram's users are appalled that their pictures and data are being exploited.
You're the product
The user backlash is understandable, but also a bit naive. Nobody wants their lasagna photos splashed on an Olive Garden ad (at least not without compensation). Few would likely want their photos' locations sold to advertisers. If a government sprang these policies on their citizens, there would be cause for uproar.
But Facebook isn't a democratic society, and it didn't pay nearly $1 billion for a non-profit organization. Instagram's app is free, and using its social network is free. It has to profit somehow. That somehow is you.
Instagram's new terms aren't surprising, but this hoo-ha shows that social media memes can still force businesses to rethink strategy. Kevin Systrom, co-founder of Instagram, wrote a blog post, backpedalling on the most eyebrow-raising parts of the terms.
“To be clear: it is not our intention to sell your photos," Systrom blogged. "We are working on updated language in the terms to make sure this is clear.” As for photos in advertisements, he added, "We do not have plans for anything like this and because of that we’re going to remove the language that raised the question."
We'll have to wait on those revised terms, but you can chalk this one up as a battle won by the internet. As for the greater war, you're going to lose. Unless Instagram converts to a paid or subscription model (not likely), you'll continue to be the product. Facebook and Instagram will find a way to make money off of your data.
If you're still skeptical about Instagram's long-term plans, there are a few alternatives.
Twitter recently incorporated Instagram-like filters into its network. All of its mobile apps have been updated with the new capabilities. Twitter is a free product too, though, so it's unclear whether your data will ultimately be in more trustworthy hands there.
Hipstamatic has much of the same functionality as Instagram. The developers are profiting from the app itself (including in-app purchases for new filters), so you're more likely to remain the customer and avoid becoming the product.
Though it doesn't have its own social network, Snapseed is an award-winning camera app for iPhone and Android. Its interface and adjustment tools (including many filters) are top-notch. There are, however, two red flags. It's free, and it's now owned by Google – whose business model is also based on selling your data to advertisers.
Backing up and deleting your account
If you want to sever all ties with Instagram, you can use a service called Instaport. After granting it permission to access your account, you can download your pictures or export them to several other services.
When you're ready to nuke your account, head to Instagram's account removal page, sign in, and watch it go bye-bye.
Much ado about nothing?
This is ultimately your call. If you enjoy Instagram, you may want to wait to see those revised terms. If you were already fed up, then perhaps this is the final nail in the coffin.
Either way, remember that businesses rarely give anything away. There's nothing wrong with a free app or service, but they're going to make their money somehow. In Instagram's (and Facebook's, and Google's …) case, it all starts with you and your data.
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