A thousand words?

One of the big stories on the net over the last couple of days has surrounded Instagram, the photo-sharing site acquired by Facebook for around $1 billion earlier in 2012. Instagram, it appeared, was going to change its terms and conditions giving it, in the words of the BBC news website, “the right to sell users’ photos to advertisers without notification.”

Instagram’s suicide note?

The reaction was, in many ways, predictable – or at least should have been. Users were ‘outraged’ – and word spread quickly around the internet that Instagram was doing something terrible, and that everyone should leave, and leave now. Cord Jefferson, in Gawker, put it like this:

‘Instagram’s Absurd New Terms of Use Agreement Is Already Being Called Its ‘Suicide Note’’

Links to websites explaining how to download your photos from Instagram, and others explaining how to delete your account, spread around twitter like wildfire, and stories made it from the technical press and the blogosphere right into the heart of the mainstream media – the BBC new story noted above was (and still is, at time of writing) prominently displayed on its home page.

Instagram moved pretty quickly – they put out a blog post last night suggesting that it was all a misunderstanding. ‘Legal documents are easy to misinterpret’ they suggested, and moved to change the words a little, and to sooth the hurt feelings of their users, and reassure them that nothing was wrong. Will it work? Do the new words mean anything substantially different? And was it all a twitterstorm in a teacup anyway?

What’s so bad?

The problem raises a number of issues. The first question to ask is why people were so outraged. After all, they ‘share’ these pictures with the world – what’s so bad about sharing them a bit further, and at the same time allowing Instagram to put together a business model that actually works, and hence allows them to provide the ‘free’ service that so many people have been enjoying. The second is whether they were right to be outraged – or at least, whether they would be right to be outraged if the story as presented was true. I can see a number of reasons for both – but to unpick them, we need to look at the different kinds of pictures that people might put on Instagram.

What’s a picture worth?

There are two very different issues at play here: intellectual property and privacy. From an intellectual property perspective, people seemed to be outraged that Instagram are ‘exploiting’ their photographs for financial gain. After all, these photos are ‘theirs’, not Instagram’s – so what right to Instagram have to sell them on to advertisers? Instagram has been very direct in making sure that people know that Instagram is NOT claiming any kind of ownership rights to people’s photographs, both in its terms and conditions and in its new, explanatory blog – but is that really the point?  The idea, at least as I understand it, isn’t really that they would ‘sell’ the photos to the advertisers, but allow the advertisers to ‘use’ the photos – a kind of licensing agreement.

From Instagram’s perspective, that probably seems fair enough – they provide a service, we let them ‘use’ our photos. Quid pro quo. They may even be right – there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and users of the internet need to start understanding that a bit better. If a company provides you with a ‘free’ service, either they’ve got to make money out of it somehow or they’re going to die a painful death. What’s more, professional photographers should have been aware of the issue – and I’m sure most of them are – so shouldn’t be putting their real, professional work on Instagram or anything like it. By all means put low-res tasters on Instagram, but keep the real things for your own website, or some professional service. If professionals didn’t know that already, this little storm should have been a wake-up call.

To me, then, the pure intellectual property issue isn’t the big one. The big issue is privacy…

Pictures and privacy

Some people have a somewhat superficial idea of privacy – that it’s about ‘hiding’ things. The ‘nothing to hide/nothing to fear’ argument is made all too often, but it fundamentally misunderstands the nature of privacy. A better way to look at privacy is that it’s about control – not complete control, but a degree of control – over what you show to whom, and when, and how. We say different things to our families and our colleagues, to our partners and our children, to people we meet in the street, to our bank managers and our employers. That’s the fundamental fallacy in the Instagram argument, at least insofar as personal, private (rather than professional) pictures are concerned. Just because we share a picture with one group of people, we don’t necessarily want to share it with others.

What’s more, privacy is as much about how and where you share, as to whom. Putting a picture up on Instagram is one thing – having your face, or your children’s faces on an advertisement is quite another. Taking it a step further, most people would like to know what their pictures are being used to advertise. It was a poignant coincidence that the story that the same ‘hardworking family‘ being used by the Conservative Party in their campaign against benefit ‘scroungers’ was also being used to advertise yoghurt, a Christian home-schooling CD, cod liver oil and a Spanish Dentist came out at the same time as the Instagram story – it shows how images can be used for many, varied purposes.

There are other issues of course – the possibility of facial recognition software or other analytical tools being used on photos, and the information gleaned being misused (e.g. for credit rating or insurance purposes, by potential employers to making hiring/firing decisions). The potential is huge. That, though, is part of the point. Pictures are worth a lot more than the ‘intellectual property’ value associated with them. A thousand words? Much, much more than that.

7 thoughts on “A thousand words?

  1. Good points here and agree with most. How this information can be misused remains abstract yet potentially mindblowing/terrifying. But because it has yet to crystalise, people don’t take it seriously. But you can look at the malicious communications act, the debate around that at the time and then see how it became this extraordinary tool for the most brazen attack on free speech in the democratic era. As we become more entrenched by systems and data checks (credit, security and more), this concept of privacy becomes even more vital. Of course these changes will make social media itself into one giant rolling ad, which is again something to fight. Final thing is in terms of money: for Instagram it is about making ENOUGH money. They have a ludicrous valuation – I am sure there were many other ways to make cash other than attacking privacy….trouble is those ways don’t justify $1bn valuations!

  2. One wry note though – nobody gives a damn about file sharing and stealing a filmmaker or musician’s work from the Internet – but when Instagram proposes to do it with your retro filtered pics of food suddenly everyone wants to protect IP ; )

    • Yes, it’s a bit ridiculous – which is why I think privacy is a much bigger issue than IP here. Ultimately, though, U think people just felt ‘exploited’ and didn’t really know exactly why, and latched onto the IP argument because it was articulated more clearly and quickly and the privacy one.

      In the end, what Instagram appeared to be doing seemed ‘creepy’… people don’t like being ‘creeped out’…

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