Instagram Isn’t a Public Utility

Instagram Isn’t a Public Utility

Dec 18, 2012 Opinions

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.

  • Robin Parker

    “…yet you’re okay with the following…” No, I’m not OK with the following, which is why I don’t use Google Drive and one reason why I don’t have an iPhone. I deleted my Instagram account this morning. I’m more than happy for Instagram to display ads in their app to monetize the service (I’m an Android user so am accustomed to using ad-supported apps), but I’m really not happy for them to use my pictures for any commercial use they see fit

  • Max

    I agree with Robin. Additionally why would any future social network refrain from selling its user’s data if we don’t take this opportunity and delete our accounts? If Instagram loses a lot of users because of their decision other social networks will think about it twice.

  • Donald Allen

    We all expected Instagram to, at some point, monetize, but not by selling or using our photos for their own benefits. Charge for Pro accounts like Flickr does. These types of TOS are dangerous. Did you miss the part where they say you agree you won’t sue them? Come on.

  • nikhilmarathe

    Great article! I think that a lot of the ‘mistakes’ people make are less to do with civic education and more to do with a culture that promotes convenience (oh look now you press a button and your filter applied photo can be seen by the whole world!) over anything else.

  • Will_Rubin

    Your article misses the point. Uploading a photo does NOT remove the copyright … unless the RIAA and MPAA are willing to accept the same terms when some random person uploads a movie, for example, to an arbitrary site that has imposed the same terms of service on movies!

    • Mike

      Your argument is flawed. The corporations that own the rights to music and movies are not uploading them to websites in which they have signed away their copyrights, such as Facebook and Instagram.

  • Cornell Campbell

    Thank you for not joining the ridiculous mass hysteria. Good article.

  • Eugene Kim

    I agree to everything except the Apple hyperbole. That was one unintentional mishap (caching cell towers for increased radio/gps performance that simply didn’t get deleted) that really doesn’t belong here. For Apple, the consumers are the customers, and they vigilantly protect user privacy, compared to Google, Facebook, and others that you mention in this article. Until we see any evidence that Apple is actually selling customer data, please refrain from the click-bait.

  • Babe Chilla

    I love this!

  • gprovida

    There is a lot of truth in your essay. However, I think the terms are often legalese confusing and enormously long. They are designed to confuse and hide. So step 1 is to demand in law and regulation simple and clear language of the terms. Secondly, I am a strong supporter of the European Union privacy law and rules to govern the use of personal data. Terms that violate these laws and regulations should be non-enforcable. The alarm is that there is no real information provided, protections afforded etc., in US law and as such it is truly Customer Beware, not a sound policy and in the end will drive people to eventually rebel and create very extreme laws to correct what could be managed to meet 90% of real concerns.

  • Tom Ewing

    Realism and understanding the likely consequences of actions works two ways. Instagram gained a userbase in the same way everything does – people copying other people. Now they may lose it in the same way. Live by the network effect, die by the network effect. (Or not – if their numbers aren’t significantly hit.)

  • Simona Combi

    I respectfully disagree. Instagram CHANGED its terms of use. Google says up front that it owns the pictures you upload on Picasa, so you can choose to not use it from the beginning. Instagram would have been much smarter if they cut contributors a slice of the pie. Instead of outrage, they would have had an even more enthusiastic following.

  • CJ Melegrito

    Exactly right.

  • Bo Gus

    Sure, businesses have to make money. Many of the services I use monitise by advertising and corporate data mining and I’m cool with that. But automatically owning anything and everything that gets uploaded without any of the associated legal responsibility – absolute bullshit. That essentially means the onus is on the user to get the rights to release for any of the content they post. So people can forget about bringing a camera to social events, cause they’ll end up getting sued (in America at least) if the images of their friends kids and non-consenting bystanders get used by a third party company because they were posted and tagged on Facebook. IMO it’s important for companies to behave like the individuals they have the same rights as, and not act like giant douches.

    You rather glibly stated at the beginning of the article “Good thing history shows that governments never go rogue and betray their citizens.” Obviously you’re being sarcastic, but the whole flavour of the article is written with the same tone – “just accept it, it’s the right of the people that hold the reigns to screw you over. Get over it and stop whinging”. When in fact history shows us that public and private organisations push the packet as far as they can until the users push back.

    As for me, I’ll keep on using Instagram and Facebook the way I always have – moderating by not uploading the stuff I don’t want in the public domain. I’ve never posted a photo of any of my family members or friends on any social network and I don’t intend to start.

    Oh, and Essentially you’re having a whinge about people having a whinge in this article – well done sir.

  • Jonny

    Apple is the only company I’d trust with privacy. Google’s whole bussinsss model is to sell user information and so is Facebook.

  • wtf

    lol that you think everyone owns a cell phone, much less a smart phone. Privileged much?

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