Instagram’s Terms of Service Debacle: What It Means for You

Yesterday, Instagram caught the attention of bloggers and users alike, and not in a favorable way.  The popular photo sharing service’s most recent changes to its terms of service (ToS), due to go into effect on January 16, led to an outcry of criticism.  At its most basic, the new service agreement gives Instagram the power to use and/or sell your content for advertising. 

Tuesday saw the web erupt in chaos: media outlets pushed stories criticizing the new policies and concerned tweets flowed all day.  Following this uproar and the immediate defection of many users, Instagram later posted a letter to users attempting to elaborate and ease the unrest.  For once, the online community has actually paid attention to one of the many service agreements we sign on a regular basis.  But, Instagram’s woes, their response, and our concerns as users go much farther than Tuesday’s debacle.

The Controversy – A Summary

Tuesday’s controversy extends from the following sentence in Instagram’s updated ToS, under Point 2 of the “Rights” section:

“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.”

At first, this statement seemed drastic: Instagram can effectively use your photos or personal information directly in advertisements, without any prior consent or payment.  In essence, many users argued, Instagram owns your content despite personal claims. 

This update was in many ways the last straw on the camel’s back.  Users still reel at Facebook’s recent acquisition of Instagram—the Zuck has gone too far.  And we have recently posted about Instagram’s recent loss of community, which acted as a large draw for many early adopters and loyal users. 

In short, yesterday we witnessed the web cry out: “Where has the old Instagram gone?!”

These Terms Are Not New


But, people like a controversy.  The Instagram staff saw firsthand that once a viral news story catches on, reason often takes a back seat to heated discussion and last words.  So then followed the response, which has attempted to clarify and ease the concerns that led to so much disturbance.

Co-Founder Kevin Systrom makes it clear: “it is not our intention to sell your photos…and Instagram does not claim any ownership rights over your photos.”  Systrom further promises to rework the language before the new ToS is implemented in order to reflect this reassurance. 

To only add to Instagram’s personal response is the fact that none of this is new.  Part 1 of Instagram’s current “Proprietary Rights” section offers very similar (if not more broad) control over user content:

“By displaying or publishing (“posting”) any Content on or through the Instagram Services, you hereby grant to Instagram a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, worldwide, limited license to use, modify, delete from, add to, publicly perform, publicly display, reproduce and translate such Content…”

This clause gives staff the right to use your content in a seemingly endless amount of ways beyond mere advertisement.

Furthermore, other popular social networks already have very similar content use clauses.  The Wall Street Journal reports that Facebook, foursquare, and Twitter all have clauses allowing the use of user content in advertisements.

But, these clauses all play a game of “ifs.”  Just because these statements exist does not mean these social networks will automatically steal your content.  To date, there are no cases of any major social network taking such a subversive action.  And Instagram has made it clear that they do not plan on being the first.

Changing Norms

So, how did we get here? Instagram acted just like its competitors.  Yet, due to a user base already critical of its recent actions and some poor PR, Instagram faced the grueling blame of a passionate group of customers.

We should not be so quick to criticize one service that is part of a changing trend in online privacy.  I’ve personally written about how the internet has come to reshape our notions of security and what data are “okay” to give up.  Instagram is merely a part of this trend.

We routinely sacrifice our privacy every day.  Mark Zuckerberg himself has gone so far as to say that privacy is dead.  It should follow then that an Instagram owned by Facebook would only emulate this way of thinking.  Yet, it seems to me that Instagram has become the unfortunate scapegoat of our own privacy concerns.

If you must ditch Instagram, do not do so in such haste—especially following their recent response to criticism.  Rather, like InfoSpace contributor Shay Coslon, do so because of a personal stance against an entire mantra towards personal privacy.  Scrapping Instagram, but keeping with Facebook and others is in many ways hypocritical.

I’ve personally come to accept the sacrifices to privacy we must make online, but I am not outright defending Instagram’s actions.  Still, let’s not scapegoat one actor with a shoddy communications plan.  Rather, we can use this occasion to address farther reaching privacy concerns.  With their recent response, Instagram seems to be on board a ship of progress.  Are you? Here’s to hoping.

Billy Ceskavich

Billy is an Engagement Fellow and Masters candidate in the iSchool's Information Management program. He's an avid fan of consumer technology and the startup space, having worked in the industry both in Syracuse and Silicon Valley. He's active on Twitter (@ceskavich) or can be contacted directly via email (

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