Instagram uproar: A testing ground for Facebook?

A popular photo sharing site owned by Facebook, Instagram released new terms of service on Monday. Now Instagram users have a month to decide how much control over their data they are willing to give up.  

AP Photo/Karly Domb Sadof, File
In this file photo, Instagram is demonstrated on an iPhone. Instagram, the popular photo-sharing service that Facebook bought this year, is the target of a storm of outrage on Twitter and other sites after the company announced a change in its user agreement.

Instagram, which spurred suspicions this week that it would sell user photos after revising its terms of service, has sparked renewed debate about how much control over personal data users must give up to live and participate in a world steeped in social media.

In forcefully establishing a new set of usage terms, Instagram, the massively popular photo-sharing service owned by Facebook Inc, has claimed some rights that have been practically unheard of among its prominent social media peers, legal experts and consumer advocates say.

Users who decline to accept Instagram's new privacy policy have one month to delete their accounts, or they will be bound by the new terms. Another clause appears to waive the rights of minors on the service. And in the wake of a class-action settlement involving Facebook and privacy issues, Instagram has added terms to shield itself from similar litigation.

All told, the revised terms reflect a new, draconian grip over user rights, experts say.

"This is all uncharted territory," said Jay Edelson, a partner at the Chicago law firm Edelson McGuire. "If Instagram is to encourage as many lawsuits as possible and as much backlash as possible then they succeeded."

Instagram's new policies, which go into effect Jan. 16, lay the groundwork for the company to begin generating advertising revenue by giving marketers the right to display profile pictures and other personal information such as who users follow in advertisements.

The new terms, which allow an advertiser to pay Instagram "to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata)" without compensation, triggered an outburst of complaints on the Web on Tuesday from users upset that Instagram would make money from their uploaded content.

The uproar prompted a lengthy blog post from the company to "clarify" the changes, with CEO Kevin Systrom saying the company had no current plans to incorporate photos taken by users into ads.

Instagram declined comment beyond its blog post, which failed to appease critics including National Geographic, which suspended new posts to Instagram. "We are very concerned with the direction of the proposed new terms of service and if they remain as presented we may close our account," said National Geographic, an early Instagram adopter.

Pushing boundaries 

Consumer advocates said Facebook was using Instagram's aggressive new terms to push the boundaries of how social media sites can make money while its own hands were tied by recent agreements with regulators and class action plaintiffs.

Under the terms of a 2011 settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, Facebook is required to get user consent before personal information is shared beyond their privacy settings. A preliminary class action lawsuit settlement with Facebook allows users to opt-out of being included in the "sponsored stories" ads that use their personal information.

Under Instagram's new terms, users who want to opt-out must simply quit using the service.

"Instagram has given people a pretty stark choice: Take it or leave, and if you leave it you've got to leave the service," said Kurt Opsahl, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a Internet user right's group.

What's more, he said, if a user initially agrees to the new terms but then has a change of mind, their information could still be used for commercial purposes.

In a post on its official blog on Tuesday, Instagram did not address another controversial provision that states that if a child under the age of 18 uses the service, then it is implied that his or her parent has tacitly agreed to Instagram's terms.

"The notion is that minors can't be bound to a contract. And that also means they can't be bound to a provision that says they agree to waive the rights," said the EFF's Opsahl.

Blocking class action suits 

While Facebook continues to be bogged in its own class action suit, Instagram took preventive steps to avoid a similar legal morass.

Its new terms of service require users with a legal complaint to enter arbitration, rather than take the company to court. It prohibits users from joining a class action lawsuit unless they mail a written "opt-out" statement to Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park within 30 days of joining Instagram.

That provision is not included in terms of service for other leading social media companies like Twitter, GoogleYouTube or even Facebook itself, and it immunizes Instagram from many forms of legal liability, said Michael Rustad, a professor at Suffolk University Law School.

Rustad, who has studied the terms of services for 157 social media services, said just 10 contained provisions prohibiting class action lawsuits.

The clause effectively cripples users who want to legally challenge the company because lawyers will not likely represent an individual plaintiff, Rustad argued.

"No lawyers will take these cases," Rustad said. "In consumer arbitration cases, everything is stacked against the consumer. It's a pretense, it's a legal fiction, that there are remedies."

Instagram, which has 100 million users, allows consumers to tweak the photos they take on their smartphones and share the images with friends. Facebook acquired Instagram in September for $715 million.

Instagram's take-it-or-leave-it policy pushes the envelope for how social networking companies treat user privacy issues, said Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"I think Facebook is probably using Instagram to see how far it can press this advertising model," said Rotenberg. "If they can keep a lot of users, then all those users have agreed to have their images as part of advertising."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Instagram uproar: A testing ground for Facebook?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today