New Instagram privacy policy frustrates users

Pictures appear on the smartphone photo-sharing application Instagram, which says it has the right to sell user photos to advertisers.

Starting next month, Instagram says it can sell your photographs to advertisers, without any approval or notification. The popular photo-sharing site has announced changes to its privacy policy which will let it use -- or, in the vernacular of the web, "monetize" -- your pictures, however it likes.

Earlier this year, Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion. Now, it's planning to make its investment pay off, but the price could be even higher if Instagram's users revolt. Many are vowing to delete their accounts -- which is the only way, it seems, to avoid the new terms. One unhappy user even posted a complaint calling the company's new user agreement a "suicide note."

Robert Hendricks, a photo adviser at Michigan State University's student newspaper, started up his Instagram account as a fun way to share his pictures. Now, he says, he's looking for alternative photo-sharing sites.

"When people start to make money off of it, that's where it's kind of a problem for me," says Hendricks. He says he's worried that Instagram is telling users they "don't have any say" in how their photos will be used.

Other users complain that Instagram's policy changes are so fuzzy, they can't know exactly what they're agreeing to. At EPIC -- the Electronic Privacy Information Center -- Marc Rotenberg says that's a common problem, because websites keep changing the rules.

"We've asked the Federal Trade Commission essentially to enforce the original terms of service," says Rotenberg, and "not to do this kind of bait-and-switch with users."  

Websites like Instagram argue that they're still learning how to pay the bills. Declan McCullagh, who watches the politics of the Internet for CNET, says the pressure to make money is understandable.

"You're using this for free," he explains. "It costs Instagram a lot of money to keep its servers running and to handle customer support issues and all that, so you can understand why they want to try to make money this way."

Fair enough, says Kurt Opsahl of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Just don't trap users into things they don't want. Says Opsahl: "It's about treating the users right, and being respectful of the user as being a very important part of what makes user-generated content sites and social media sites what they are."

Opsahl says Instagram's new parent, Facebook, should have learned that lesson a long time ago, because it already tried pushing these limits. "Ultimately they changed a lot of their practices, to go to more of an opt-in model, where if there was going to be a change in how the data was used, people would be asked first, he says.

Opsahl says Instagram may end up following the same course, and rolling back some of its new policies to avoid losing too many users.

About the author

Bob Moon is Marketplace’s senior business correspondent, based in Los Angeles.

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