Instagram Policy Changes: Backtracks, Lesson Learned

Popular photo-sharing service Instagram recently announced changes to its privacy policy – changes that could have allowed it to sell users’ photos to third parties without the users’ consent. The company backtracked amid the resulting uproar. What can be learned from this fracas?

The sentence that freaked out most people, as reported by PC World, fell under “Rights” and went like this: “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’ve seen advertising on Facebook that shows one of your friends liking a certain product, well, this is more or less the same thing. And it’s not too surprising, considering that Facebook purchased Instagram.

This change, and certain others, to Instagram’s privacy policy, sparked outrage among its users, and many people chose to quit the service rather than submit to the policies. Before the new rules could go into effect on January 16, however, Instagram backtracked, at least a little. In a new blog post this week, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom said that “we’re going to modify specific parts of the terms to make it more clear what will happen with your photos.” He insisted that “it is not our intention to sell your photos,” though they will be probably be used in “innovative advertising that feels appropriate on Instagram.” Furthermore, he emphasized that “Instagram users own their content and Instagram does not claim any ownership rights over your photos.”

But just how well is Instagram really listening to what people are saying about how they handled this? Ian Paul , writing for PC World, pointed out a number of things the photo-sharing social site could learn from the debacle.

First, Instagram should try to remember that, though it has been purchased by Facebook, it is not Facebook, and it would behoove them not to act like their new parent company. This privacy policy move, according to Paul, smacks of Facebook all over: “revise your policies or services, wait for the backlash, and then backtrack a little,” he explained. “The result is that while many people use Facebook because of its popularity, very few people seem to trust the company’s motives.” Instagram has built up a ton of goodwill with its service, and it would be a shame if it squandered it in this way.

There’s another way in which Instagram is not Facebook: it has a lot of competition which is just as good, depending on what you want to accomplish. Remember Flickr? How about Photo Shack? Picasa? And then of course there’s Pinterest. For heaven’s sake, Wikipedia lists nearly 40 “major” photo sharing sites, and admits that its list is non-exhaustive. “Unlike Facebook, which dominates the social networking world, Instagram is a popular choice among many for adding filters and sharing photos online.”

Since Instagram is NOT Facebook, it needs to remember that it shouldn’t ACT like Facebook. In other words, don’t get uppity or condescend to your customers. Paul called on the company to “drop the hubris,” and fixated on one sentence from Systrom’s blog post: “Legal documents are easy to misinterpret.” According to Paul, “The subtext of that statement is: ‘you’ve totally got it all wrong, but we’re changing the parts you didn’t like anyway.’” Again, Instagram seems to be imitating Facebook “by apologizing for how things were perceived instead of for the issues themselves,” according to Paul.

That action, taken by Instagram, is patronizing, almost to the point of willful ignorance. Come on, guys; Facebook, at least, has been down this road before, and you can’t claim you haven’t seen it happen before. You MUST have known what would happen!

This very fact – that Instagram should have known what kind of reaction their new privacy policy would get – means that they should be able to do better next time. Heck, Instagram should have done better THIS time. Instead of coming out with a short blog post saying its terms of service had changed, followed a much longer, more explicit blog post when the tide of reaction on the Internet got too loud to ignore, Instagram should have done it right the first time. “Next time, Instagram should skip the outrage phase by clearly explaining its plans the first time.” That’s exactly what you do if you want to build a business that’s more respected than Facebook – you respect your customers enough to not act like you’re trying to sneak something past them. Here’s hoping that having Facebook for a parent won’t prevent Instagram from learning that valuable lesson.