The latest in a string of privacy-related controversies for Facebook comes from its newest acquisition, Instagram.
Facebook has announced that all public photos submitted to the photo sharing app can be sold to advertisers without specific consent or notification. The service already angered more than a few customers by blocking direct photo embedding in Twitter posts – now it has angered far more. The backlash on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere has been strong.
Its competitors, like Flickr and 23snaps, have been quick to take advantage of the situation, some hastily releasing statements about their commitment to their users’ rights and privacy. It remains to be seen how much migration this will actually cause; Instagram is not Facebook, not an indispensable life tool, and so may not be able to get away with Facebook-style games of chicken with their users’ indignation.
The actual changes are fairly blunt: Instagram may sell your photos to “a business or other entity” for use “in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.” This has largely been assumed to mean that advertisers would collect user-submitted photos for use in advertising or other materials. One commentator argued that the change would turn Instagram into the world’s largest stock photo agency.
Editor’s update: A recent blog post by Instagram claims the company is not interested in selling user’s photos to outside parties as stock imagery.
There are other uses, however, that seem more plausible – particularly, market research. As photo-analysis algorithms become more and more advanced, as Google and others teach computers to recognize everything from brand labels to cat faces, there become more uses for terabytes of candid photographs, handily indexed by gender, age, occupation. The great downfall of market research is simply accuracy; their methods necessarily skew the results. But if a few million photographs confirm that 65% of males age 18-24 show them holding a Pepsi, rather than a Coke, that’s pretty compelling evidence that internet-savvy males age 18-24 who own smartphones prefer Pepsi. These days, hard evidence in marketing is as good as gold.
Instagram’s new user agreement also differs from the old in changing the “limited license” for photos to the new “sub-licensable” category. This and a few similarly pedantic changes subtly reframe content submitted to Instagram as the company’s sole property. Even minors are held to this standard, as under the new agreement, “if you are under the age of eighteen …. you represent that at least one of your parents or legal guardians has also agreed to this provision.”
There are still numerous questions surrounding this move, such as the question of curation. Will Instagram sell content wholesale, by demographic area, color temperature? Will it offer an a-la-carte purchasing system like a stock photo service? Will it compile its own packages of usefully cluttered photos and aggressively sell them? And just who will be eligible to draw from this library? And, perhaps most importantly, does this represent the eventual goals of Facebook for its core service?
No matter what the long-term effects it seems likely that the competitors, particularly the newly app-focused Flickr, are about to enjoy a not insignificant bump in attention. It’s retaining that attention that could prove difficult.