Instagram Isn’t a Public Utility

Instagram released its modified Terms of Service yesterday, and the internet at large is wildly displeased. As I’m sure you’re already aware, the modified terms include a few provisions found distasteful by many:

  1. Instagram can use your photos and data for its own advertisements.
  2. Instagram can display ads without marking them as ads.

These are somewhat icky, sure, but not in the least surprising. Ignoring the contingent who are shocked to find that Instagram is a business and will start to monetize (check the comments of Instagram TOS articles on any popular news website), let’s talk about the nature of law and privacy on the internet.

Scales of Justice #yesfilter

Let me get this straight. You’re furious with Instagram for claiming the right to use your likeness in its ads, and yet you’re okay with the following:

  1. Most social companies sell your data to advertisers. If we’re thinking clearly, it’s obvious that the advertisers are their true customers, and their users are the product they sell.
  2. Google Drive claims the right to use your uploaded files to promote itself, even if you delete your account.
  3. Apple keeps tabs on your location with great precision. The data is stored and can be retrieved by Apple.
  4. The government can access the data you’ve stored with a social website, usually without needing to get a warrant. This data likely includes medical information (you’ve used WebMD, right?), movement patterns (assuming you haven’t destroyed your smartphone’s SIM-card a la Jason Bourne), and general proclivities (ever searched for something embarrassing in Google?) Good thing history shows that governments never go rogue and betray their citizens.

Social media is not a public utility. Using Instagram is not a right. When you begin using these services, you enter a legally binding contact with them, defined in the Terms of Service. Clicking “I agree” without reading that document is insanely irresponsible — you could be selling your soul without even realizing it. In the cases of Facebook and Instagram, you already have.

If you don’t read the terms of service before starting your legal relationship with a website, that’s fine. But you forfeit your ability to complain about the terms — the contract under whose authority you’ve voluntarily placed yourself — without sounding completely foolish.

Civic education is in a sorry state, not only in the United States but in democratic societies around the world. The fact that anyone thinks they can copy-and-paste a paragraph of legalese to their Facebook status and thus alter their legal standing on Facebook indicates we have a lot of work to do.

Perhaps people are thrown off by the ease with which they can create an account with a website. Checking an “I agree with the terms of service” box doesn’t feel as weighty as signing a physical document of the equivalent length, even if they have the same legal standing.

Similarly, due to the open nature of the internet, people seem to forget that they’re engaging in a relationship with a private corporation, not a public utility. Access to Facebook isn’t the same as access to tap water or electricity — your rights to Facebook only extend as far as the terms dictated by the terms of service established by Facebook, Inc.

The internet brings out extremism in its users. Between the anonymity it provides and the mob mentality it fosters, it’s hard to find any sort of moderation. Just check the comments of any popular YouTube video to see what I mean — the tenor of the conversation alternates between “This is the best thing ever, and if you disagree, you’re stupid and/or evil!” and “I didn’t enjoy this, and so I wish harm upon the person who made it and their family.”

When a social media company changes its terms of service, an appropriate response would be to keep using it (if you agree to the terms), to delete your account (if you don’t,), or to express your displeasure by contacting the company (if you really, really don’t). While I’m sure plenty of people are expressing themselves in this way, their voices of reason are drowned out by the contingent which insists on complaining loudly that the greedy robber barons are infringing on their fundamental human right to use Instagram. Delete your account, and let the rest of us continue on in peace.

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