At first glance, it seems like a spectacular example of corporate suicide. Instagram, the popular photo-sharing service, was assailed across the web on Tuesday, after The New York Times dug into Instagram's new terms of service and discovered that the policy would allow the company to sell users' photos to advertisers without their knowledge. To compound its troubles, Instagram does not allow users to opt out of the provision, which means that ditching Instagram is the only way users can guarantee their fake polaroids are not used for commercial purposes. And ditch they did, starting a #BoycottInstagram movement that caused the website of Instaport, a backup storage space for Instagram photos, to crash. "We are expecting high traffic right now," Instaport said.
This is not the first time that Instagram has been accused of selling out. When it was purchased by Facebook for $1 billion earlier this year, there was a lot of concern that Facebook would ruin the service in an attempt to monetize it. Those fears were borne out last week, when Instagram announced that it would separate itself from Twitter, a Facebook competitor. "In just a few months, the company has gone from the straightforward, easy way to share faux-vintage photos with your friends across a range of social networks to being another cumbersome, slightly insidious social media company," says David Thier at Forbes. "Call it Facebookitis."
Indeed, it would be creepy to find a picture of your kid in an ad for Pampers, or of yourself shopping at Target on the side of a bus. No one wants to be unwilling participants in "the world's largest stock photo agency," says Declan McCullagh at CNET. However, the fact of the matter is that Facebook, Foursquare, and Twitter have similar language in their user agreements. "Most of these terms are necessary to ensure that third-party applications, such as apps that connect to services such as Facebook and Foursquare, can do the things they do," says Matthew Lynley at The Wall Street Journal. Indeed, "Instagram has always had the right to use your photos in ads," says Nilay Patel at The Verge. "We could have had exact same freakout last week, or a year ago, or the day Instagram launched."
Does that mean Instagram, in practice, won't actually sell user photos to advertisers? Lynley argues that Facebook, which has "shied away from" such money-making schemes, is unlikely to force Instagram to do so. "Instagram has to make money because it is a business after all, but it can't do that if its users are leaving in droves for other services."
Also, the notion that you may become the new face of Bushmaster rifles is not quite accurate. Any Instagram ad would likely be similar to Facebook's Sponsored Posts, in which "advertisers can pay to 'sponsor' your posts in various categories to make sure they prominently appear in your friends' News Feeds," says Patel. "So if you 'like' The Hobbit, the filmmakers can pay Facebook to promote that post across Facebook."
However, it's undoubtedly true that Instagram is legally capable of exploiting user photos. And there are many competitors to Instagram out there. "The stage is now set for a better company to take Instagram's place," says Thier.