It used to be that users would blighly just check the TOS box at the end of any sing up process for websites or software. The Terms of Service were often pages and pages of small type that gave the service all kinds of rights and protections. In fact, often TOS caveats were 'belt and suspenders' terms that lawyers would use to reserve all kinds of rights that might never actually be needed or implemented.
But the power of the crowd, and the increasing concerns about privacy and intellectual property rights are changing the way users think about those little checkboxes.
And now, for the first time, companies need to think about the rights they reserve with more specificity and clarity. Sure, 95 percent of the users won't read the fine print -- but someone will, and with Reddit now as a powerful amplifier of customer issues and concerns -- small print looms large.
Of course, the Instagram TOS explosion of the last few days is terrific evidence of this.
The twitter backlash was immediate - as reported by QZ.com:
"Instagram pisses off 100 million people with a drunken text ... oh, I mean new Terms Of Service."
-- Prison Photography (@brookpete) December 17, 2012
"Unless #Instagram changes its terms I will be deleting my account. I don't work for free. #instathieves #instadelete wired.com/gadgetlab/2012..." -- Bryant Hawkins (@bryant_hawkins) December 17, 2012
"Hey, @instagram? Adding a clause to your Terms stipulating that you can steal pics doesn't make it legal. Congrats on killing a great thing." -- Daniella Zalcman (@dzalcman) December 17, 2012
"Instagram's new Terms of Service Will Drive Talented Photographers Away.After Jan. 16, images from user ac instagr.am/p/TX-Qy9Km7h/" -- Tomas VH / VII (@TomasVH) December 18, 2012
"Inspired by #instagram etc I've launched new social media site called mugPuntr. 1: You sign up. 2: You give me all your money. 3: That's it." -- Jeremy Nicholl (@Russian_Photos) December 18, 2012
Kevin Systrom, Instagram co-founder, responded with a blog post on saying it wasn't Instagram's intention to sell user photos, and the terms of service would be updated to be made more clear.
Of course, this isn't the first time that changes in a free sites service or behavior has outraged users. Facebook faced a revolt over its controversial ad platform changes back in 2010, and more recently the change to 'timeline' riled users. And just two weeks ago, YouTube dramatically changed its home page -- prompting a raft of complaints.
The simple truth is that users are getting more sophisticated about how their content, information, and social network likes and dislikes are gathered and shared. No longer will sites be able to post TOS language that is vague and over-reaching without risking a user uprising or outright defection. This isn't a bad thing, it's just the new normal where fine print gets dissected, and a few engaged users can engage the crowd and drive user behavior. It may be fine print to you and me, but for someone, the terms are fodder for a peek into the future of how a site or service may behave. And now, transparency rules.