Instagram Me Not

Instagram’s recent change to their terms and conditions raised quite a ruckus. It essentially said that the company had the right to sell your photos to someone else without your permission and without compensating you. Ouch… The reactions have been pretty extreme, from users dumping their Instagram accounts to those saying, “Suck it up and stop whining – you aren’t paying for the service!” Each perspective (and everything in between) has some merit.


After the internet erupted in flames regarding this issue, Instagram’s co-founder quickly issued an Orwellian statement that went something like this, “Well, I know we stated that we had the right to sell your photos and not compensate you, but that was really not our intent.” Really? Hmmm… let’s look at the language:

“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.”

I don’t know about you, but I find the language to be pretty clear. Not only have you agreed to this provision for your photos, but as a parent of a child under 18, you have also offered your consent for Instagram to use your children’s photos, once they have clicked the check box next to Instagram’s terms (which you may or may not have been aware of). Won’t you be surprised when one of your teens does something stupid, snaps a shot of it, and then you see it prominently displayed all over the internet in an ad for some product… for years! How special is that?

So how should you think about the policies of such services and put them into perspective? Read on…

What Is The “Product?”

I find it rather amusing to see how outraged people can be regarding such policy changes, considering that they pay nothing for the associated service. My first inclination is to ask “Just what do you believe you are owed for the $0 you pay company X?” The internet has ushered in a new level of people believing in the concept of a “free lunch.” So many applications, websites, utilities, tools, etc. are free that some, who might wish to charge for something, are greeted with a tone of righteous indignation. Many, even within the technical community, rarely consider where the money to pay for these services comes from.

When you join Facebook, Instagram (now also Facebook), MySpace, Google, Youtube (part of Google), Twitter, etc., you may think of the service as the “product.” But as someone once said, “If you are not paying for something, then you are the product.” That’s right – you are being sold. To whom? Anyone that wishes to market something to you. In the case of Instagram, it is also seeking to create its own private stock photography agency, all courtesy of your pictures. Nice deal if you can get it, huh?

The $1 billion of cash and stock it received from Facebook should have given everyone a rather obvious clue that Instagram wasn’t attempting to be the “Red Cross of Software!” ;)

The Nature Of The Beast

The business model of providing some form of content or service via a website for free and selling advertisements is not similar to non-subscription radio and television. And while most people now pay for subscription cable networks, subscriber fees represent a small fraction of the content providers’ revenues. Most of the revenues earned by media companies come from advertisers that are willing to pay handsomely to get their message in front of you. The same goes for many websites. Many people think of Google as a “cool” technology firm, and yet if you look under the covers, it is first and foremost, and advertising company. If you doubt that, simply ask yourself how much you pay for Google Search, Docs, Earth, Google+, Toolbar, Talk, Gmail, etc. (hint – that would be $0).

So if you are not paying a subscriber fee that covers the service provider’s costs and allows the company to make a reasonable profit, how can it stay in business unless it uses some form of advertising or purchase-based transaction fees? While technology prices continue to plummet as throughput and and storage capabilities significantly expand, the server farms and technicians to maintain them can still cost plenty. Something to think about the next time an ad is served up on a website you visit…

Your Rights As The “Product”

Simply put, you can elect to continue using Instagram or not. According to some reports, nearly three-quarters of a million users ditched their Instagram accounts, many after using a handy utility such as Instaport, which enabled them to download their photos from Instagram and repurpose them on other social media sites. One might imagine that this widespread defection on day 1 of Instagram’s attempt to abscond its users’ photos and sell them to others was responsible for Instagram’s founder backing off the company’s original plan. It seems that the idea of their photos and/or those of their children being sold by Instagram without their permission and compensation was a bit much. Nice try, Instagram… ;)

But while you aren’t paying Instagram a penny, the firm still cares about what you think, at least to the extent that dissatisfaction regarding its policies is widespread and threatens to affect a significant portion of its user base. If Instagram loses enough users, it diminishes its claim to fame of having a large, diverse audience – something of value to current and potential advertisers. It also enables others (perhaps such as Google that purchased the widely acclaimed Nik Software company, of which I am a huge fan) to capitalize on such stumbles.

The lessons of Myspace haven’t been lost on many social media-type firms. While such companies may be easy to start and can grow exponentially with relatively small investments, their end users are fickle. Myspace showed how quickly today’s wunderkind can quickly go to being yesterday’s news. No doubt, Instagram realized that its new terms regarding using its users photos without permission and selling the rights to them to others wasn’t going to fly and did the wise thing by reversing its decision, albeit rather awkwardly. Of course, this begs the question regarding what other revenue source it will attempt to tap into next?

Going Forward – “They’ll Be Back!”

I don’t think Instagram was simply being naive regarding the change in policy. Instagram calculated this policy very carefully and decided to see how much of a backlash it invoked. Over the last ten years or so, we have seen social media firms and others in the internet space float many “trial balloons” regarding their ability to push the envelope when it comes to privacy and copyright issues. The use of such online services and tools is changing the nature of how we perceive privacy, copyright, and intellectual property.

As I wrote some time ago, Pinterest has been instrumental in this area. Millions of users are now believe it is perfectly acceptable (and in some cases, their “right”) to post the photos of others (without the owners’ permission) on Pinterest’s site simply because they like the photo. No doubt that Pinterest’s management is keenly aware of how they are affecting the public’s perception of both privacy and copyright issues. Of course, someone posting a photo is technically supposed to get permission from the owners of the photos before doing so according to Pinterest’s terms and conditions (wink, wink!). Right. Who would have thought that a business could be built around the notion of enabling people to take the photos of others and post them to a website?

Users of any internet service (particularly those they are not paying for) should be mindful of the associated existing terms and conditions and stay abreast of any changes. Instagram will retrench a bit after this episode, but it will be back with another policy change in the future that attempts to make it more palatable for some to exchange more personal information of some sort. If it continues to find that people are resistant to such use of their information and photos, don’t be surprised to see Instagram implement some form of fee for using the service.

Did anyone really believe Facebook paid $1 billion dollars to Instagram simply to expand the opportunity for us to add cool looks to our photos and share them with others for free? ;)


  1. 1) Phil
    December 20, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    Their conditions were obviously written by an attorney, and they must think we are morons to believe they didn’t mean what they said. They didn’t expect the blowback, so now they are lying about their intent. None of my photos will ever appear on Facebook or their adjuncts.

    • December 20, 2012 at 9:37 pm

      I would put Instagram’s retraction up there with that classic line, “that would depend on what your definition of ‘is’ is.” ;)

      • 1.1.1) Phil
        December 20, 2012 at 9:48 pm

        Or, I didn’t have sex with that woman……… :-)

  2. December 20, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    I will more than likely close my instgram down for pictures I capture and want to sell through the instacanvas service. To be quite honest I think its a bit of a joke that people work hard and use years of experience to capture a beautiful image only to have instagram compress it and make it look like a picture a child has taken whilst messing about with daddy’s phone camera!

    I think I will just use it for pictures that I am not overly proud of and leave the better ones for my own site, that is once I get around to creating it!!

    Thanks Bob,


    • December 20, 2012 at 9:39 pm

      I can understand Instagram’s need to make money, as no one pays them a dime for the service. However, attempting to slide this major announcement by as they did was not the right approach, nor did they adequately anticipate how this policy might go over. Perhaps they merely took a chance and decided to roll the dice.

  3. December 20, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    I completely agree with you, Bob. I don’t know which was the purpose of Instagram at the beginning, but now it’s clear. I’m not sure about the fact they will try to charge a fee, because this could trigger an even more number of people leaving the service. Instead they will find another way to make money out of that. This is the Facebook strategy. Facebook changes the policy, once in a while, making it longer and less understandable. Same will be for the company owned by them. They want you to become dependent from the service, uploading your information, your picture, your videos, so it will be more difficult for you to leave. You upload stuff under certain rights, and they change the rights over that, because all the policies are affecting everything (I think). This should be forbidden.

    I’m not on Instagram. I’m on facebook, but only to keep in touch with people. I stopped uploading the pics on facebook 3 years ago (now I pay for smugmug). I did not remove the old pics because probably does not make any difference. I don’t use a gmail account for email, but I cannot avoid to use google for searching. This is almost impossible, but I’m fine with having advertising, because sometimes I search on google to buy stuff. I never clicked on any ad from Facebook, they are completely unuseful for me, and probably for a lot of other people, even if they are supposed to be targeted for me. Facebook was really smart going on the Stock Exchange, but I don’t know how long it could last. If the bubble blows up, all the company owned by them will disappear, and we will lose all our nice facebook profiles…

    • December 20, 2012 at 9:42 pm

      Indeed we should all be more circumspect regarding what we post and how we utilize such services. It is all fine as long as these services are free to use, but eventually the day of reckoning comes and they are required to show a profit for the millions invested. I can appreciate their need and associated challenge of making a reasonable profit. The attempt to swipe their users photos and sell them without permission under the guise of a change of terms and conditions (which few too many of us actually read!) might not have been the best approach! ;)

  4. 4) Tyla
    December 20, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    I don’t use mobile devises(!) so I haven’t used Instagram but their statement of “reassurance” does not make me feel better. If they really don’t intend to sell user photos then the only thing that would prove that would be changing their TOS, which they have not done.

    You are absolutely right,Bob.There is no free internet lunch. If you want privacy you will have to either pay for it or be prepared to see a lot of ads and have at least your name if not your content sold to others. Personally, for a service I use a lot I would rather pay $5-$10 a month than give up my legal rights to my own work. I will be very careful where I post my images from now on and they will always carry a watermark.

    • December 20, 2012 at 9:43 pm

      I agree that a fee for using Instagram or Facebook would be preferable, but I suspect others may disagree. I would rather not have to deal with being the “product” and instead have the service be the product.

      • 4.1.1) Tim Mielke
        March 13, 2013 at 1:07 pm

        I wonder if they would create a paid and a free account. The monthly subscribers could retain their image rights and the “free” accounts would give away their photos to Instagram. Just a thought that came to mind right away when I read your posts.

        • Profile photo of Bob Vishneski Bob Vishneski
          March 13, 2013 at 8:25 pm

          As long as the terms are clearly stated, Instagram is free to decide which policies are best for the company and its customers. Unfortunately, switching the rules midstream is pretty bad form… and business!

  5. December 20, 2012 at 4:39 pm

    Interesting read, Bob, thank you. I’ve been hearing tidbits here and there about Instagram but thanks to this article I now have the full picture. Those of us who can remember life before desktop computers marvel at the growth of something so simple yet so complex as “social media”. Social media has literally changed the world (Egypt) but has yet to justify its lofty market valuations. It remains to be seen whether or not these companies can deliver profits vs. “clicks”. And as this all flushes out, I suspect we’ll see even more attempts at profiting above and beyond the selling ad space. I believe this is just the first salvo in what may be a long and protracted war for the survival of free social media.

    However, I’m still at a loss as to why Google swallowed up Nik software. Do you have any theories as to how Google intends to utilize this company? I worry that Nik will lose focus on what made their software so great and chase something as trite as finding ways to ugly photos like Instagram does. If so, this would be a tragedy to all users of digital photography.

    • 5.1) Phil
      December 20, 2012 at 9:53 pm

      I just hope Google doesn’t run Nik into the ground. I use it daily. I would have thought Google would have purchased Zenfolio. That would have been a smart move – Google could really take that market with such an move – and really improve the product/service.

    • December 20, 2012 at 10:17 pm


      Glad to add some clarity to the issue. Indeed I think the social media companies will continue to “push” this issue along by similar attempts in the future. If, by way of changing social norms, society cares less about privacy, it will certainly make the social media’s job easier.

      Regarding Google buying Nik? IMHO, Google would like to create some challenge to Adobe, and offer a truly cloud-based photo processing service. I love Photoshop, but downloading, upgrading, maintaining, etc. the application is a royal pain. I recently replaced my computer after a hardware malfunction and had to remind myself of how to correctly configure Photoshop for plugins from Nik, Imagenomic, and Topaz. 3+ days of installing software, rebooting, updating Windows, etc. Not exactly a lot of tun.

      One might imagine that Google, via current and future enhancements to Nik software, might offer Adobe-like processing capabilities but without the large software installs on your PC. Upload your photos to Google Photo (making this up) and then perform all your editing on Google’s servers. This would be in stark contrast to Adobe’s cloud-based service, since still requires you to download and install Photoshop on your machine.

      Google might start down the road of challenging Adobe on the Photoshop front and require nothing more than the ability to upload your photos to Google’s servers. Adobe has some tools like this, but they are rather simplistic. One might imagine that Google is looking at Adobe’s success and thinking it might be able to cut into its market share. Or so I imagine… :)


  6. 6) Mikhail
    December 20, 2012 at 10:38 pm

    Hehe! Thanks, Bob. Great article.

    They have some balls to state that despite the TOS wording, selling/using photos was not their intent :)

    Facebook paying $1 bil for Instagram was something I didn’t understand. In fact, Facebook going public and their “value” was a puzzle for me. When that happened, my first thought was, “didn’t MySpace prove that this model was so easy to replicate and steal the user base?” Any guy who knows PHP can create a social media website (with more friendly TOS). What happens if a big IT corporation decides to challenge you? Oh, that’s right, Google has announced Google+.

    FB needs to tread lightly, and so should Instagram. FB a powerful networking and marketing tool that I love using because of it’s potential, but one misstep and I’m out, and I’m sure many others will leave too.

    • December 20, 2012 at 11:06 pm


      I think you are spot on – Facebook’s business could evaporate tomorrow. If Google decides to make a stronger push for Google+, there is no reason why, under the right circumstances, you couldn’t see a mass defection from Facebook. I understand and empathize with Instagram’s need to make a profit, but as I indicated earlier, I would have opted for a $25 annual fee, much like flickr, with the possibility of serving up ads – not selling photos of people’s kids via a sneaky change to their T&Cs.

      But what do I know? I didn’t extract $1 billion from Facebook for a rudimentary photo editing and sharing application! ;)


  7. 7) Knips
    December 21, 2012 at 7:17 am

    Another “Get rich quick scheme”. At the expense of other people’s hard work and creativity. And on and on it goes…

  8. 8) Jorge Balarin
    December 21, 2012 at 11:48 am

    HI Bob,
    I’m pretty much ignorant about Instagram, but I have a Facebook account. I would like to know if right now Facebook can use the photos I posted. Greetings, Jorge.
    What I think is very unkind is this “small letters” policy. It is a way of cheating. Also I think that they can’t do what they they want with photos that were posted before their new policies. An alternative is to pay fairly for the photos they use, keeping also money for them.

  9. December 22, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    So get this, there was a segment on my local news claiming Facebook is considering charging for message services. It looks like the house of cards may be starting to wobble…

    • December 22, 2012 at 4:47 pm

      I heard something similar. I don’t necessarily blame any of these services for attempting to make a buck. After all, who among us goes to work for free? Of course, what they hope to do is get people hooked on the service(s) and then gradually introduce fees, using people’s pictures for their private stock photography purposes, more intrusive ads, etc.
      If enough people opt out of such paid services, and or people don’t click on the ads presented on these sites’ pages, however, these business model starts to fall apart. We will begin to see how much people value these services and what, if anything, they are willing to pay or exchange (such as their photos) for the right to use them.

  10. April 12, 2013 at 5:38 pm


    I agree that much of the world believes the Internet is supposed to be FREE. Just like music is, like, supposed to be free, man. And most people don’t read the fine print because it’s usually saying the same thing and, of course, ignorance is not an excuse, but I do think that companies like this owe the world a little more. I don’t use IG so maybe I missed it, but was there a summary when the rules changed? Knowing that this was much bigger than “you can’t post porno” and “you can’t post copyrighted works”, did they put a nice big banner across the login form saying “New rules: we can sell your pix and not compensate you. Read the whole boilerplate HERE”? I doubt it. They were COUNTING on peopled ignorance but ALSO the fact that many folks today have so many EULAs to keep up with that it’s difficult for anyone, especially someone who is not an attorney, to keep up on all the changing rules.

    They had the right to do this, they spelled it all out in proper legalese, and they COUNTED on the typical user’s brain-bandwidth product being insufficient to be aware of this change and/or to be cognizant of its implications.

    • April 13, 2013 at 2:12 pm

      The internet may be “free,” but what most people don’t realize is that “they” are the product being sold. If you are not paying for something, your demographic information is being sold to advertisers. Without advertising dollars, they will attempt to make money off your content.
      These services can always change their rules down the road. And you are indeed right – they often count on people’s naivete.

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