Instagram: 'We Don't Want To Sell Your Photos' (Updating)

Instagram has posted a response to the concerns raised over the new Terms of Service and Privacy Policy that were announced yesterday. Instagram says that it doesn't want to sell your photos. It admits that the new TOS is unclear and says that it will be updated.

In a blog post, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom goes to great lengths to clear up the confusion over the new policies that are supposed to go into effect next month. In particular, he addresses the charge that Instagram hopes to earn money by selling your photos:

To be clear: it is not our intention to sell your photos. We are working on updated language in the terms to make sure this is clear.

Similarly, Systrom is very clear that the concerns raised by some about how your profile photo might be used in advertising on Instagram are untrue:

The language we proposed also raised question about whether your photos can be part of an advertisement. We do not have plans for anything like this and because of that we're going to remove the language that raised the question.

Still, Systrom says that Instagram is a business, and that as a business, it does probably one day or another have to sell advertising. The intention of changing the policy wasn't to suddenly appropriate your photos or sell them, but to open the door for better advertising on Instagram.

But let's take a look at what the TOS actually says. This is the relevant passage about your photos and content as they relate to advertising:

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. If you are under the age of eighteen (18), or under any other applicable age of majority, you represent that at least one of your parents or legal guardians has also agreed to this provision (and the use of your name, likeness, username, and/or photos (along with any associated metadata)) on your behalf.

Basically, Instagram can take your photos, username, location data, and actions and place them very near an advertisement for something else. The only thing Instagram can't do is modify your content and incorporate it with the ad itself. Instagram doesn't need to tell you and it doesn't need to pay you, it can just do it. For all intents in purposes, it can turn you into an advertisement.

Systrom doesn't come out and say that Instagram won't do this and instead serves us a nice bunch of babble:

To provide context, we envision a future where both users and brands alike may promote their photos & accounts to increase engagement and to build a more meaningful following. Let's say a business wanted to promote their account to gain more followers and Instagram was able to feature them in some way. In order to help make a more relevant and useful promotion, it would be helpful to see which of the people you follow also follow this business. In this way, some of the data you produce - like the actions you take (eg, following the account) and your profile photo - might show up if you are following this business.

Well that's still vague, but what might this advertising look like?

It seems that Instagram's plan might be to sell advertising much the way Facebook does with images within your feed. So if (and we're totally guessing here) you follow Budweiser and a bunch of bars on Instagram and then Instagram will pop in sponsored photos about things related to drinking. Similarly, if your friend likes photos by some advertising entity, Instagram might let you know or suggest you follow it as well.

This is all pretty standard advertising stuff. If that's the case, why does the language have to be so complicated? Instagram didn't really give itself new rights with the new TOS—it's just that the change freaked people out and they actually bothered to look at what they'd signed away before. It turns out that what Instagram could and couldn't do has been pretty unclear all along. The point of the changes were largely to wrap your Instagram data into your Facebook data. This is supposed to be the Facebookification of Instagram.

So while it's nice of Instagram to take the time to address the concerns after the updated policies, let's not take all of these idealistic, innocent statements too seriously just yet. None of this means anything until we see an updated version of the TOS that's written in language we understand. Just because you "say" you're not going to do something doesn't mean much if you're still legally allowed to do it. [Instagram]