Don't blame Instagram users -- blame Instagram

The tech press says users are at fault for this week's terms-of-service debacle. Ignore them.

After two days of increasingly loud arguments, the flap over Instagram's new terms of service has started to quiet down . Amid widespread concern the Facebook-owned company was about to start selling user photos to advertisers, the company yesterday said it "has no intention" of doing so, and would change its terms of service to reflect that intention.

At this point we should probably turn our attention to more pressing worldly concerns, of which there are plenty. And yet the fracas has revealed something ugly in the way that many in the tech press blame average people for Instagram's mistake. Somehow the botched rollout of a business model has been painted as the fault of the service's 100 million users.

"Who's to blame for the Instagram debacle? Take a look in the mirror," says GigaOm. Time's Techland blog rolled its eyes at "A Bunch of Tech Things People Have Threatened to Quit Recently," including Instagram, which "can now sell you to fur traders per the new Terms of Service." To anyone who assumed Instagram's new terms would result in their photos being sold without permission, TechCrunch's M.G. Siegler had this to say: "You sound like a delusional, paranoid jackass."

These pieces, which were accompanied by similar sentiments on Twitter and around the Web, make four basic arguments: You are an idiot for thinking Instagram would never try to make money. You are an idiot for failing to understand the new terms of service. You are an idiot for assuming Instagram would act against your interests. You are an idiot for caring about any of this to begin with.

Let's take those arguments in turn.

You are an idiot for thinking Instagram would never try to make money. This straw man has been under construction since last week, when a Facebook advertising executive said that "eventually we'll figure out a way to monetize Instagram." A few tweets later, and the tech press was ready to pounce. "Instagram Users Appalled To Learn That Instagram Is a Business," snarked Slate, which rounded up a handful of (inexplicably anonymous) Twitter users who expressed disdain for the idea of advertising coming to their feeds. Note, though, that no one here expressed confusion over Instagram's for-profit status. Instead they expressed disappointment that brands were about to start popping up inside a beloved app. That kind of disappointment is apparently more than the (ad-supported) tech press can bear.

You are an idiot for failing to understand the new terms of service. Siegler again: "It seems no one bothered to actually read the terms of service changes and compare them to the old version." Sure they did. Here's Nick Summers at the Next Web doing some comparisons. On CNET, Declan McCullagh quotes privacy advocates and photographers who were struggling to make sense of the revised terms. Reuters spoke with legal experts and found that Instagram had "claimed some rights that have been practically unheard of among its prominent social media peers." The truth is that Instagram's revised terms are confusing -- and the company admitted as much on Tuesday afternoon. (A related argument went that all terms of service are broad and empower companies to do nefarious things, and that you're an idiot for choosing to start caring about that now. But people's photos are uncommonly important to them, and it's no surprise they took a strong interest in how they will be used by third parties.)

You are an idiot for assuming Instagram would act against your interests. GigaOm's Mathew Ingram notes with condescension that "the dominant strain of thought" is that "the photo-sharing service has been infected by the same nefarious privacy virus that Facebook is notorious for, and only eternal vigilance will stop it from doing something horrible with our photos." Adds Siegler: "These companies are not SPECTRE out to do evil in an attempt to destroy the world." The idea here is that companies act in their rational self-interest, and so would never do anything to actively drive their users away. If only that were true. In fact, Instagram's parent company has repeatedly pushed the envelope on privacy issues. It was Facebook, after all, that pioneered an ad product that disclosed users' online purchases to their friends. (The resulting class-action lawsuit was settled for $9.5 million.) It was Facebook that entered into a consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission over its broken promises on privacy issues, and which must now submit to independent audits for the next 19 years. No, companies never act against their users' interests -- except when they do.

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You are an idiot for caring about any of this to begin with. There's lots of this around the Internet today: a kind of free-floating amusement that anyone would worry that their sepia-toned latte photos will be used in advertisements. Fortune's Adam Lashinsky wondered "what the vast majority of thinking adults think of all this." Instagram, he wrote, is "something that just so fundamentally doesn't matter." He added: "Who really cares about Instagram?" Besides the 100 million people who use it? The bigger question here seems to be why we care about a company's terms of service. The answer is that Internet companies' policies around privacy and advertising affect us in everyday, practical ways. The lawsuit against Facebook's Beacon program was filed by a man who had bought an expensive ring for his wife, a fact that was shared on Facebook for her to see. More recently, the Wall Street Journal looked at the phenomenon of personal secrets being disclosed on Facebook, causing users to be inadvertently forced out the closet and to lose their disability insurance benefits, among other embarrassments. Maybe Facebook, having absorbed those lessons, will avoid them with Instagram. But history suggests we have reason to worry.

All of which is a long way of saying that when it comes to revised terms of service, it's OK to be worried. It's OK to speak up. It's OK to delete your account, if you don't like the way things are going. It's the only power average people have in their dealings with companies, and it's more than OK that they use it. There were delusional jackasses in this week's fight over Instagram's ad business, all right. But not among the people who dared to ask exactly what Instagram was up to -- and who forced Instagram, however tentatively, to retreat.

 

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