Instagram asserts the right to sell your photos

You are not the customer, you are the product.

Instagram, the photo-oriented social network which was purchased by Facebook for $700m in cash and shares last April, has revealed the new terms of service which it will be implementing from January next year, and they mark a new direction out for the company.

The passage which is getting all the attention online is the second section under the heading "Rights":

Some or all of the Service may be supported by advertising revenue. 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. If you are under the age of eighteen (18), or under any other applicable age of majority, you represent that at least one of your parents or legal guardians has also agreed to this provision (and the use of your name, likeness, username, and/or photos (along with any associated metadata)) on your behalf.

Instagram is not just taking adverts, as many predicted would happen once the Facebook acquisition was complete; it is also claiming the right to sell use of your photos to businesses to make ads with.

That's a pretty big step up from previous practice, but is similar in tone to what Facebook has been doing with their social marketing for a while now. As Nick Bergus learned, Facebook's method isn't without hitches. When he posted a jokey link to a 55-gallon barrel of "Passion"-brand lubricant, it was adopted by Facebook into an advert which was then shown to all his friends.

The problem with the Instagram extension of this concept is two-fold. Firstly, just as with the Bergus screw-up, recontextualising a picture as an advert changes what it says, frequently for the worse. But secondly, it feels like a Rubicon has been crossed if the "user-generated content" being used is undoubtedly a creative work – which even the blandest Instagram photos are – and if money changes hands without including the actual creator of that work.

In addition, of course, there's the idiot factor: People seem to forget how public Instagram is, and finding themselves included on a national poster campaign could be a nasty way to find that out.

As ever with this sort of change, there is likely to be a disconnect between the rights the ToS claim, and Instagram's actual plans. I would be surprised, for instance, if they intended to sell user images for use as generic stock photos, rather than for Instagram-specific ad campaigns. But I would also be surprised if these terms didn't give them the right to do that if they so desired.

Oh, and you can't actually reject these terms. If you're still using the service on 16 January, you are deemed to have accepted them.

It seems almost too perfect that in the same week that Instagram launches an anti-user change, Flickr – remember Flickr? – has released a new iPhone app which brings a host of Instagram-like changes to the service, including far quicker access to the camera, better Twitter integration and, yes, filters. A number of people are suggesting switching to (or back to) the service as a result.

The best thing about this switch is that it isn't just kicking the can down the road. After all, the reason Instagram included these changes is because it has to make money. The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal makes the point:

[C]ompanies have to sell themselves because they do not have a sustainable business. And when they're sold, they either A) get shut down or B) become part of an advertising machine, like Facebook's.

Truly, the only way to get around the privacy problems inherent in advertising-supported social networks is to pay for services that we value. It's amazing what power we gain in becoming paying customers instead of the product being sold.

Flickr, by contrast, does have a paid service, and has for years. There's no guarantee it won't take the quick buck – but it has a business model which involves treating users as the customer, not the product. And that's a nice change from the norm, these days.


Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.