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Instragram’s terms of service: The big picture

Shane Schick
FAIRFAX, CA - DECEMBER 18: The Instagram logo is displayed on an Apple iPhone on December 18, 2012 in Fairfax, California. Users of the popular photo-sharing app Instagram are angered over language in Instagram's new terms of service that states that a business may use any of the users photographs in advertising without compensation to the user. The policy is set to go into effect on January 16, 2013. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

It may be owned by Facebook, but don’t pretend Instagram is one of your friends.

The mobile photo sharing service caused an uproar in social media circles on Tuesday by updating its terms and conditions, the document that sets out the rules for using it. Although Instagram does not claim ownership over the photos people post on it, the terms and conditions give the company a sort of licence to use them in various ways. Suddenly, it seems to want more from that licence.

“Some or all of the Service may be supported by advertising revenue,” the Instagram document says. “To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.”

For many users, this is creepy stuff. Though they may be sharing the photos “in public,” there’s often a sense that, with the proper privacy settings, the images are still only intended for certain eyes. The new terms and conditions shatter that illusion completely. And about time, too.

The whole situation is not dissimilar to moves by Google earlier this year to consolidate around 60 different privacy policies for various services into one. Many worried that this would allow the search engine giant to do a lot deeper data mining on consumers, which be highly valuable (and lucrative) to potential advertising clients. It’s becoming a consistent pattern: social media services start out by focusing on the fun elements, strike a posture of goodwill and openness, then turn the tables in their policies once they achieve critical mass.

“I sort of come down on the side of, ‘Buyer beware,’” says Mark Goren, director of Nexalogy Environics in Montreal, which creates software to track the sentiments people are expressing online. “A lot of people are using these channels for free. They get the benefit of connecting with people and communicating but it doesn’t cost a dime ... It’s foolish not to think that at a certain point they’re not going to figure out a way to make money.”

Goren says that within the last 24 hours, there have been more than a million posts on Twitter mentioning Instragram, and some 10,000 have used some variation on the term, “bye-bye.”

I doubt we’ll see a mass exodus from Instagram, however. Unless Facebook started maliciously using consumers’ images for profit in ways that are obviously inappropriate, which it is unlikely to do, the majority will grudgingly move on. It may be we’ll one day even accept the notion of contributing to a sort of global stock photo agency, which is what Instagram’s business model is starting to look like. After all, there was a time when sharing half the things we do today on social media services would have seemed completely ridiculous and dangerous.

The lesson here is to approach the next big social media service with our eyes wide open, cognizant that using online tools for free doesn’t mean you’ll avoid a sort of bill down the road. When Facebook bought Instagram, everyone wondered how it could be valued at US$1 billion. Now you know.