This article was originally published before Instagram responded to the outrage with this message. Instagram has removed the confusing clause and apologized for the misunderstanding. Therefore some of the content of this post is no longer timely, but I believe the over-arching point about what people will accept from a social network is still worth discussing.


Thank goodness there’s somebody out there pawing through massive license agreements and thank goodness the Internet allows for people to share the important parts.

Instagram just made everybody very, very unhappy by tweaking their terms of service. Here’s the changes Instagram highlighted, in my words, not theirs:

  • You still own your photos.
  • Instagram now syncs more effectively with Facebook.
  • The new rules help protect you.

You don’t need me to say that these three bullet points are meaninglessly vague. Here’s the actual meat of the changes, buried in the fine print. This is the stuff that’s got everyone up-in-arms (this time in their words, my highlights):

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.

“Attention amateur and professional photographers. In order to make your service more awesome, we can sell your work and information to other companies without telling you or paying you.”

The new terms do some weird mental gymnastics with wordplay and logic. Instagram claims no ownership of any of the content you post. But they also reserve the right to sell it. I’m pretty sure there’s a word for selling something you don’t own. One of those words etched into a stone tablet after “Thou shall not…”

Alright, alright, I’m need to dial it back a bit. After all, Instagram is a free service, and free services have to make money somehow, right? Advertising is the logical next step. Facebook spent $1 billion to buy Instagram earlier this year, and naturally they’re going to want to make that money back sooner rather than later.

At this point, it’s not like anyone should be surprised about Facebook sneakily changing privacy settings. I’m going to assume that applies to the companies they’ve purchased too.  So why is the Instagram thing making people so mad? Why is it OK when Facebook provides your information to advertisers, but not OK when Instagram gives your photos to advertisers?

Mostly, it’s because of what the two services do. Mostly, Facebook is for connecting with people. Mostly, Instagram is for creating and sharing photos. You don’t make anything with Facebook. Facebook wants your information and your photos, but it never gave you a way to create something. And when Facebook shares that information, it’s so advertisers have information and ways to contact people, not so the advertisers have a go-to database of creative work. Instagram tried to build a community for photographers, providing them both a way to take and way to host their images. Then after they got millions of users, they suddenly declared all the users’ work to be theirs (without legally “owning” it).

Turns out, that while most people are not very protective of their personal information, they’re very protective of the things they create. Instagram just found out where the line in the sand was for people sharing on social media.