As the old Internet saying goes, "If you use something for free, you are the product for sale."
Facebook and its shiny new acquisition Instagram seemed to have taken that maxim to its logical extreme when Instagram announced new terms and conditions yesterday granting it the ability to license users' photos for display by advertisers without user consent and without compensation.
Whatever Instagram's actual plans for our photos -- artfully filtered iStock photos? sponsored posts of latte art? -- or the full legal implications (some argue that Instagram already owned your photos), the ramifications of the terms have left the Internet sputtering in outrage. And, if comments and tweets are to be believed, causing users to abandon the app en masse.
UPDATE: Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom published a blog post later this afternoon promising to revise parts of the new terms of service that have caused consternation. He said the company will not sell people's photos without compensation and reiterated that users, not Instagram, own the photos they upload to the site. He said, however, that the company will continue to look for "innovative" ways to advertise.
Whether Instagram technically has the ability to license your photos already or not, what matters to most people is intent: Instagram appeared to signal an intention with its new terms to license your photos to advertisers without previous consent. That's what seemed to have changed, and what people are upset about.
WordPress shouldn't be able to publish books pulled from people's blogs. The makers of canvas and paint don't own a painting. Providing the platform shouldn't mean the company then owns and profits from the creation.
You may not think much of your friend's pet photos. You may even think Instagram is a bastion of hipster artistes who are getting their just deserts (filtered in Lo-Fi, natch). But if there's money to be made directly off of someone's content, it should accrue to the creator.
It's easy to see how Facebook and Instagram made this misstep, and how users were quick to react to the changes. After all, packaging up and regurgitating people's Likes in the form of "Sponsored Stories" is one of Facebook's money-making innovations.
But users expect that what happens in Facebook will be splayed all over Facebook. It's quite another thing entirely to sell someone's creations to the highest bidder in contexts the user cannot control, and Instagram was slow to explain the changes.
It's also a bit baffling that Instagram appears to be choosing this route as their first profit-making approach instead of a more tried-and-true route to app profits: The upsell.
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New Instagram filters are greeted with the breathless anticipation of summer blockbusters in some circles. Why not give away the basic platform for free and then sell new filters and features? Why not get people hooked and charge later?
I would pay at least $4.99 to get the "Gotham" filter back alone. (Instagram, take my money!)
Perhaps selling cool features to loyal fans is not the way to recoup a splashy billion dollar acquisition. Maybe, as with Sponsored Stories, after our outrage died down we could get used used to seeing our vacation photos used to sponsor Hilton hotels.
But selling people's personal photos to advertisers is too clever by half as a way of making money. It underestimates the extent to which people grow attached to creations that are uniquely theirs, and how thoroughly tired we all are of having our personal moments and interests exploited for commercial gain without notification. The service may be free, but we're also free to leave.
We may be the product for sale. Giving away our posts may be the cost of using a free service. Instagram should at least give us the chance to pay.
Updated to reflect Instagram's statement