Why Are You Freaking Out About Instagram’s New Privacy Policy?

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The worst company in the world, apparently.

I am perpetually baffled by the backlash that results every time a social-media company changes its privacy policies to make its users' data more freely available to advertisers.

Do people even know how the Internet works? The entire point of starting a social-media company is that it gives you the ability to make money by advertising things to people. Facebook does it by selling packets of user data to companies like Wal-Mart. Twitter does it by tacking promoted tweets onto your search terms. Gmail does it by showing you ads for Lean Cuisine next to your mom's e-mail reminding you not to binge-eat during the holidays.

This is called "monetization," and we have come to accept it as the inevitable price of getting cutting-edge Internet services for free. But now that Instagram, too, has decided to monetize, we are outraged.

If you missed it, Instagram — which is owned by Facebook — changed its privacy policies this week, allowing for the first time the possibility that it could pimp out user photos to third parties without their consent. The new policy might one day — in theory — result in your brunch snapshot appearing in an ad for Tropicana, unbeknownst to you. (Note: Despite misleading headlines, Instagram's new policies say nothing about "selling" your photos in the sense of transferring ownership. They just allow Instagram to license them to other companies.)

Here is how people on my Facebook feed are reacting:

Imagine, you have a cute picture of your child running on the beach in Hawaii at a popular hotel. That hotel sees the pic, buys it from FB (Instagrams owner) and now your child/children are on a national ad campaign that you did not agree to and you receive zero compensation. AND you have no choice. I'm deleting my account after I post this

Facebook can soon sell your Instagram pictures without your consent or payment. Time to move to Google+

See ya, Instagram. #delete

Then there is this heartfelt lament from Brooklyn-based photographer Benjamin Lowy:

Brooklyn, NY | December 18, 2012 This is my son Mateo. Photography is how I provide for him, clothe him, put him in school. Photography is my passion, my calling, and my means of livelihood. Now Instagram and Facebook want to take my hard earned imagery, and use it to generate income for themselves. What they have done is signal the end and failure of what could have been a revolutionary social media platform for visual communication. So for now, I must take a step back and reassess my place on Instagram.

Some Instagram users are even making a fuss about moving to Flickr, the Yahoo-owned photo service, where they can keep their photos to themselves.

A few things to keep in mind as you, too, contemplate moving off the Hefe-filtered grid:

Instagram is a business, not a public utility. You were given access to it for free, and it currently has the financial weight of Facebook behind it, but Instagram needs to make money at some point, or else it will cease to exist. Think of it like a 30-day software trial period. Eventually, that period has to end. And when it does, it only has a few options for charging you, one of which is direct (making you pay $5 or $10 a month to belong), and the other of which is indirect (keeping it free for members but making advertisers pay for licensing). You may not like that Instagram is choosing option B over option A, but realize that it had to choose one or the other at some point.

Social-media privacy is an oxymoron. It's a truism that if you want something kept private, you shouldn't put it on the Internet. People I like and respect, like Nick Bilton, are claiming that the new policies will make them skittish about posting pictures of their family members and their homes on Instagram. But really, wasn't that choice ours in the first place? Instagram is not like Flickr or Picasa — which are used by many people to back up their photos privately in the cloud. Even if you have your Instagram profile set to private, it's still a social app. And if you don't want photos of your children and homes ending up being repurposed for public use, there is a very easy way to ensure it doesn't happen: Don't post them on Instagram. 

Your photos are not that interesting. Sam Biddle makes this point, and it's true. Let's think about this. Of the 5 million photos that are uploaded to Instagram every day, how many do you think will be deemed worthy of licensing by an advertiser? 50? 100? Even if it were 1,000, that's still just a 0.02 percent chance every day that one of your photos will end up being used without your permission. But it won't even be that high, because most of the photos corporations will choose to license will be from celebrity Instagram feeds. Given the choice between buying a photo of Ryan Seacrest's fruit salad and yours, which is Au Bon Pain going to go with?

• Facebook already has your photos. It's surprising that Instagram's changes are sparking outrage, considering that if you have a Facebook account, you've already given up the same rights Instagram is now asking for. Yes, even selling your images to advertisers. From Facebook's terms of service: "For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (IP content), you specifically give us ... a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post."

• You can leave now and keep your copyrights. Instagram was actually fairly generous with how it rolled out its new privacy changes. Rather than implementing them immediately, it gave pissed-off users nearly a month, until January 16, to archive their old photos and delete their accounts while keeping ownership of their photos. That's not the approach of a heartless company that wants to invade its users' privacy. It's the approach of a company that really, really doesn't want to start charging users a monthly fee but is running out of alternative options.

There are many more arguments, both for and against Instagram's changes. But none of them will really matter, because — as with every Facebook privacy uproar in the last five years — the number of users who actually delete their Instagram accounts after threatening to do so will be very, very slim. Most Instagram users couldn't care less about the terms of service or what the company does with their images. (In fact, many users would be thrilled to be in an Au Bon Pain commercial.)

That fact won't lessen the momentary grandstanding from plugged-in users who see the total control of their content, posted voluntarily to free social-media sites, as their divine right. But it will mean that their sound and fury will probably fall on deaf ears in Menlo Park.

Update: Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom has released a statement addressing the backlash. In reads, in part: "Instagram users own their content and Instagram does not claim any ownership rights over your photos. Nothing about this has changed."