December 22, 2012

Kevin Systrom Lied To Us

There have been a lot of insults hurled towards Instagram this week.

The photo-sharing service first announced some changes to their terms of service earlier this week, allowing them to sell their users’ photos and other data to third-parties for use in ads, all without compensation to the user. Many Instagrammers were understandably upset and began vowing to leave the service, calling the company creepy, shady, and even inept. Instagram’s co-founder and CEO Kevin Systrom reacted a day later in a company blog post, backpedaling against the rush of negativity and essentially trying to take it all back without actually making any significant changes. His response did little to quell the bad press and general ill-will wished against his company, so his company decided to essentially wash their hands of the entire mess and return to the original terms of service.

And while there’s much to be said about this entire fiasco and discussions to be had regarding a free service’s right to their users’ data, there’s a few points which should also be considered: One of which is that Kevin Systrom lied to us.

At the time of this writing, Systrom has written two very demeaning and passive aggressive blog posts to Instagrammers, treating them as stunted children who can’t understand plain English. “I have no idea why you’d be so upset,” he seems to say. “We never had any intention to actually sell your photos. Clearly you misheard us. Here, let me try it One. More. Time.”

The very title of his first response says all that needed to be said about his feelings towards the entire debacle.

“Thank you, and we’re listening.”

It was as if he was writing this through gritted teeth, trying his damnedest not to fly off the handle and create an even bigger fustercluck than he had already started.

“Legal documents are easy to misinterpret,” he continues, taking the users by the hand as he prepares to walk us through the nitty-gritty details of exactly how his company plans to turn those over-exposed pictures of waffles into gold, pure gold.

The thing is, the newly revised terms of service stated their intentions pretty clearly: They wanted to leave some legal wiggle room to do with these photos what they wanted. They thought it’d be profitable to let their advertisers have access to these pictures, a sort of “Hey, why PAY a photographer to take pictures of your product when you can just pay US for all those real and authentic shots of your product in the wild. Think of the implied emotional connection in these shots! You can’t put a price tag on targeted marketing like that, but we thought we’d give it a try…”

Systrom thought the words “without compensation to you” weren’t clear enough, as if these words don’t already imply money changing hands between two parties while the third remains the worst kind of silent partner.

He took a more nuanced approach to denying the sale of user photos in his first response, saying the company didn’t have any plans to sell photos. They were just, you know, toying around with the idea.

In his more recent post, Systrom gets straight to the lies.

“I want to be really clear: Instagram has no intention of selling your photos, and we never did. We don’t own your photos – you do.”

Which is true. Instagram never made any mention of ownership in their revised terms of service. They only said those who wanted to use the service had to allow Instagram to do with the photos what they wanted: Use them to sell ads. It’s a clever side-step, Systrom, but we’re not buying.

The Verge’s Nilay Patel is a very bright man with plenty of knowledge when it comes to reading patent litigation and other forms of legalese. He’s written a post today in which he chides the media for inciting the Great Instagram Freak-Out of 2012 by latching on to the emotional story rather than looking into the nitty gritty details and reading the new terms of service with a heaping spoon of salt.

“An industry afraid of user backlash every time a terms of service agreement changes simply won’t change those agreements very often — instead, it’ll make them as broad as possible to cover any possible future plans,” writes Patel.

“And this strategy will work: vague “human-readable” language is comforting and easy to ignore, while harsh, specific legal language always makes people uncomfortable.”

Systrom threw up his hands in his latest back-pedaling blog, saying Instagram would go back to the old terms and forgive him for trying to be upfront with you, hipsters, thank you very much.

It’s also hard to separate Instagram from Facebook in this one. While they certainly didn’t have the stage they have now before they were acquired by the very creepy and privacy-violating Facebook, it’s likely few other companies would have guided or influenced them to do such a thing. After all, Facebook has to make money now too, and they’re just trying to leverage their businesses to become even more profitable.

Patel believes other companies will learn from Instagram’s blunder and avoid being straight forward and honest with their users, keeping their users in the dark as they haphazardly share their most valuable data.

I disagree. Companies may try to learn from this situation, but users are just as capable of doing the same thing. No company is ever just absolutely thrilled to offer you a completely free, no strings attached service. They’ll need to make money somewhere along the line, and these days it’s become increasingly apparent that these companies will make money from following our every action, tracking our behaviors, and selling them to advertisers. It is what it is, and as long as we’re willing to use these services gratis as opposed to throwing a few bucks their way, things will never change. Yet, we also have the choice to not use these services or be incredibly picky about what we share. In the end, we have the power, and while certain terms of service may seem awfully heavy-handed, there has yet to be a set of conditions which force users to take advantage of a company’s services.

One thing that shouldn’t be missed, however, is that Systrom lied.

Somehow, he saw it fit to make the leap from: “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” to: “Instagram has no intention of selling your photos, and we never did.”

It’s hard to see these two statements as anything but wholly contradictory.

In addition to lying, Systrom was a dick about it all, saying things like: “rather than obtain permission from you to introduce possible advertising products we have not yet developed, we are going to take the time to complete our plans, and then come back to our users and explain how we would like for our advertising business to work.”

It’s as if he’s saying, “Geez, you guys are totally not capable of having a single abstract thought. Look, next time we try to move this little service you love so much forward, we’ll make sure we program our Speak and Spell to explain it to you.”

Users need to be aware of what they’re getting into, absolutely, but Mr. Systrom, don’t insult our intelligence. You admitted your plans and we reacted. There’s no need to get passive aggressive with us. If you want to call us all idiots, just do it.

Image Credit: prosotphoto / Shutterstock

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