Time to send an SOS over Instagram's TOS

More Facebook/Instagram follies raise uneasy questions why a policy change morphed into such a mess.

Inside Scoop: Instagram backpedals on new privacy rules
Inside Scoop: Instagram backpedals on new privacy rules
Maybe Mark Zuckerberg is busy out hunting for his own food. The company's No. 2, Sheryl Sandberg, might be tied up putting the finishing touches on her soon-to-be-published memoir. And so we're left with poor -- not financially poor, obviously -- Kevin Systrom to explain one of the most bizarre weeks in Facebook's young history.

On Monday, Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, announced changes to its terms of service that opened the way for the company to use people's photos in advertisements without needing permission. That triggered the predictable storm of controversy, with privacy advocates screaming bloody murder and outraged users bolting the service entirely.

By Wednesday, Facebook-Instagram apologized for the confusing language, essentially blaming the mess on inexact grammar and sought to qualm fears that filthy lucre would trump the concerns of users. But in blog post, Instagram head Kevin Systrom promised "updated language" but still hinted that something was in the offing that would result in "meaningful ways to help you discover new and interesting accounts and content while building a self-sustaining business at the same time." Whatever that meant.

So it was that late Thursday, Systrom, who must have whiplash by now, put out yet another missive announcing that Instagram was returning to the original terms of service which accompanied the launch of the service in October 2010. Why? Here's Systrom:

Earlier this week, we introduced a set of updates to our privacy policy and terms of service to help our users better understand our service. In the days since, it became clear that we failed to fulfill what I consider one of our most important responsibilities - to communicate our intentions clearly. I am sorry for that, and I am focused on making it right.

The concerns we heard about from you the most focused on advertising, and what our changes might mean for you and your photos. There was confusion and real concern about what our possible advertising products could look like and how they would work.

Because of the feedback we have heard from you, we are reverting this advertising section to the original version that has been in effect since we launched the service in October 2010.

Paging General Custer: Debacles anyone? Even if Zuckerberg and Sandberg weren't involved in what should have been a routine policy decision that normally winds up routed to a company's middle managers, they are now. The Mickey Mouse way this issue has been handled raises new questions about managerial judgment. It's reached the point where the embarrassment requires a full rethink and so it's back to the future with the original TOS until they can figure out how to do this in a way that doesn't trigger a thermonuclear reaction among users.

Going forward, rather than obtain permission from you to introduce possible advertising products we have not yet developed, we are going to take the time to complete our plans, and then come back to our users and explain how we would like for our advertising business to work.

That's touching but somebody's head is on the block -- or it ought to be. This is basic blocking and tackling. The privacy crowd can look back upon the events of the last week and say they struck a blow for user rights and the effectiveness of mobilizing user outrage but Facebook/Instagram can't allow a repeat performance. Especially not as a publicly-traded corporation.

You also had deep concerns about whether under our new terms, Instagram had any plans to sell your content. I want to be really clear: Instagram has no intention of selling your photos, and we never did. We don't own your photos - you do.

Finally, there was also confusion about how widely shared and distributed your photos are through our service. The distribution of your content and photos is governed by our privacy policy, and always has been. We have made a small change to our terms to make that as clear as possible.

Next time some minor Einstein decides to muck around with terms of service, this decision needs to get fully vetted and checked better for the possible implications. This is user data -- photos, in this case -- that we're talking about and big companies like Facebook have no interest in inflaming the passions of the folks who made them successful. If the wording is not crystal clear, then don't hit the "publish" button before the terms are understandable to a 10-year-old.

This isn't rocket science and so it's amazing that the supposedly smart set running Facebook/Instagram are finding it so hard to get this right.

 

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