12/19/2012 02:56 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2013

What You Need to Know about the Instagrab

How many people actually read a site's Terms of Use -- that link at the bottom of a site which brings you to a 20-page document written in cumbersome legalese? Well, in many instances, the answer is no one reads them except for the lawyers who wrote them. So imagine Instagram's surprise when the entire Instagram community actually read Instagram's revised Terms of Use (which go into effect on January 16, 2013), igniting a firestorm of controversy.

Most of the controversy focused on the following paragraph:

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 associated metadata), and/or actions you take in connection with sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.

So what does this legalese mean? Theoretically, it could mean that Instagram has the right to sell your photos for use in third party advertisements. It is that interpretation that resulted in the blogosphere calling it the great Instagrab. However, a closer reading suggested that such broad rights may not have been Instagram's intent. Given the express language ("businesses...may pay us to display"), it was more likely that Instagram's intent was to follow the ad model of its parent company, Facebook, for its Sponsored Stories, which turns Facebook user's "likes" into third party advertisements on Facebook. Indeed, based on this language, Instagram's goal appeared to be the creation of its own sponsored content within the Instagram service and not the right to sell photos for third party advertisements.

Nevertheless, the controversy continued to boil until late yesterday when Instagram, in response to the public outcry, announced that it had no intention of selling user's photos and that it was working on revising its terms to clarify this misconception. In a blog post entitled "Thank you, and we're listening," Instagram informed users that it was committed to listening and doing more to answer their questions, fix any mistakes, and eliminate their confusion. At that point we could almost hear the Instagram community's collective sigh of relief.

But that sigh was not too loud as this experience left many Instagram users still wary about Facebook's influence on Instagram. Instagram also made clear in its mea culpa that, while it had no intention of selling photos to third parties, it envisioned a future where brands could promote their account to gain more followers and its goal is to "experiment with innovative advertising that feels appropriate on Instagram." As for exactly what that means, Instagram gave the following hypothetical: if a business wanted to promote its Instagram account, and a user were to "follow" the business, the site might use the user's profile photo in a message telling the user's friends that he/she was following the business. Again, this sounds a lot like Facebook's Sponsored Stories. As such, much of the Instagrab controversy and negative PR could likely have been avoided had Instagram clarified its intent at the outset, rather than backtrack as a result of a massive Internet outcry.

So if you are still debating whether you should delete your Instagram account, remember the following:

  1. You still own your photos. The revised Instagram terms make clear that "Instagram does not claim any ownership of any Content that you post."
  2. Instagram stated that it has no intention of selling your photos and it is in the process of revising its terms to clarify this point.
  3. Ads are coming to Instagram (likely as part of Instagram's own version of Sponsored Stories) and you may not even know they are ads. According to the revised Instagram terms, "You acknowledge that we may not always identify paid services, sponsored content, or commercial communications as such."
  4. Instagram has not changed the control you have over who can see your photos. According to Instagram, if you set your photos to private, Instagram only shares your photos with people you have approved to follow you.
  5. If you are still not happy with Instagram's changes, you have until January 16th when the new terms take effect to delete your account.

Finally, what can we learn from the great Instagrab? It may not be such a bad thing to read a site's lengthy and cumbersome Terms of Use as the terms may include important information about your rights and privacy.