Analysis

Instagram's privacy policy retreat: Too late?

The photo sharing app reverses a change in its terms that had terrified users by suggesting the company would sell their pictures to advertisers

That was fast. After two days of customer uproar, Instagram has ditched changes to its privacy policy, and reverted to the original terms of service that the photo-sharing app had used since its launch in October 2010. Users had fled the service in droves because many interpreted the new language to mean that Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, was claiming the right to sell their snapshots to advertisers without compensating customers, and that they had to either accept the company's terms or leave. The about-face from Instagram came late Thursday. Kevin Systrom, the company's co-founder, also tried to reassure users that the company never planned on trampling their rights. "It is not our intention to sell your photos," he said.

Instagram's retreat was quick, say Nicole Perlroth and Jenna Wortham at The New York Times, but not quick enough to keep from sending "unprecedented amounts of traffic and new users" to rival photo-sharing applications. Pheed, a 9-week-old Instagram-like app that lets users monetize their pics by charging followers to see their posts, soared to no. 9 on iTunes' list of most downloaded social networking apps this week. Flickr's mobile app also vaulted up the charts. Camera+ got in a dig, promising users it would "never do shady things with your shared pics because it just isn’t right."

Of course, most of these services are still tiny compared to Instagram, which claims to have more than 100 million members who have uploaded roughly 5 billion photos using its service. And it's not clear if their newfound members have also deleted their Instagram accounts or are merely dabbling in other offerings. But the migration, whether temporary or permanent, is a reminder of the volatility of success and that the fall to bottom can sometimes be as swift as the rise to the top.

"Paging General Custer: Debacles anyone?" says Charles Cooper at CNET. It is mind-boggling that none of the social-media geniuses at Facebook/Instagram could see that the mere suggestion of using people's photos in advertisements without their permission would leave privacy advocates "screaming bloody murder and outraged users bolting the service entirely." What were they thinking? Surely this attempted corporate suicide would have been prevented if somebody had run this by Mark Zuckerberg or Facebook's no. 2, Sheryl Sandberg.

Next time some minor Einstein decides to muck around with terms of service, this decision needs to get fully vetted and checked better for the possible implications. This is user data — photos, in this case — that we're talking about and big companies like Facebook have no interest in inflaming the passions of the folks who made them successful. If the wording is not crystal clear, then don't hit the "publish" button before the terms are understandable to a 10-year-old.

This isn't rocket science and so it's amazing that the supposedly smart set running Facebook/Instagram are finding it so hard to get this right.

Instagram's nightmarish week "is a case study in tech PR blundering," says Josh Constine at TechCrunch. "It demonstrates the need for clear explanations of terms of services changes." (Systrom blamed the backlash on confusing grammar in the now-scrapped policy update.) Instagram was trying to lay the groundwork by changing its terms "to cover future monetization strategies" — but maybe Instagram should have simply waited until right before its new money-making schemes went live so users would know what the change was really about.

Needless to say, Instagram could have handled this whole situation better, and others startups would do well to avoid this mess. If there's one big takeaway from the whole debacle, it's that web services have to make sure not to confuse their users with terms of service updates, or people will assume the worst.

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