The Instagram user community is buzzing this week about its new Terms of Service, which clearly grant Facebook, Instagram’s new owners, the right to use your images just about how ever it wants. Apparently this is shocking to many. To others of us, it is another “you get what you pay for” example of how economics works. For access to a kind-of-cool set of image filters for free, and nearly unlimited photo sharing for free, you would expect there to be a catch. The catch is ads, and “monetization” of the content. Facebook didn’t spend $1 billion for Instagram just so its users could provide sepia versions of their profile photos.
It is both logical and inevitable that ads will permeate the Instagram service, the way they do the rest of Facebook, and that they will be as confusing as many of the other Facebook ads (like those weird times where you get a notification that one of your friends likes some pathetic-sounding consumer product or big box retail store). After all, once you share a photo as public, you’re saying anyone can view it. So who’s to say that the page they view it on shouldn’t also be an ad for the hotel where it was taken?
I’m not defending the new Terms of Service. Personally, I much prefer to use paid photo sharing sites like SmugMug, where I am the customer, and retain all rights to my images – for just this reason. Perhaps the immediate user backlash will even cause Facebook to tweak the words of the new TOS a bit to soothe the clamor. But don’t be fooled. You are no more the customer for Facebook (or Instagram) than you are for network TV. Advertisers are their customers. You (and your images in this case) are their product. They produce that product by attracting you with free stuff (TV shows in the case of the networks, community and sharing services in the case of Facebook and Instagram).
If you’re interested in the specifics of the new Instagram terms, they’re online and take effect for any photos on their service after January 16th. There is plenty of debate over what they might really mean, and what Instagram might really do with them, but in short – if you’re in doubt about the value of a photo to you, don’t upload it to a free photo-sharing site, certainly not in high-resolution.