Everyone Is Ignoring the Much Bigger Problems With Instagram's New Privacy Policiy

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Dec. 19 2012 1:27 PM

Everyone Is Ignoring the Much Bigger Problems With Instagram's New Privacy Policy

Instagram Kevin Systrom
Instagram's Kevin Systrom addressed Monday's tempest over photo ownership, but hasn't said anything about other problematic clauses in the photo-sharing service's new terms of use.

Photo by Eric Piermont/AFP/Getty Images

The furor over Instagram's new terms of service has centered on one awkwardly worded sentence that some media outlets interpreted as giving Instagram the right to sell your photos to advertisers to use as they please. As I and a few others wrote on Monday, that's probably not what the sentence actually meant. Still, the daylong backlash, which saw prominent users delete and suspend their accounts, only began to dissipate when Instagram founder Kevin Systrom came out with a statement promising to remove the sentence and clarify the language around who owns the images that users post to the site. Presumably he'll do that in time to get more user feedback before the new terms go into effect on January 16.

That can only be a good thing. And for professional photographers, and organizations like National Geographic, there's no doubt the content-ownership issue is of critical importance. But here's the downside: All the fuss over advertising has drowned out discussion of some other elements of Instagram's new terms of service that seem genuinely problematic for the average user. Some of the best reporting I've seen on this comes from Reuters' Gerry Shih and Alexei Oreskovic, who—unlike many of the tech blogs that rushed to capitalize on the outrage over the photo-ownership clause—took a broader view of the new policies and how they compare to others in the social media sphere. For anyone concerned with online rights and privacy, their article is an essential read. A few key points:

  • While Facebook has been forced by lawsuits to include opt-out settings on key privacy issues, Instagram's new policy is "take it or leave it."
  • Instagram's new terms include a clause asserting that users under the age of 18 imply by their agreement that a parent or legal guardian has also read and agreed to the terms. (Yeah, right.)
  • The new terms require users with a legal complaint to submit to arbitration rather than sue Instagram in court, and it prohibits them from joining a class-action lawsuit under most circumstances. Reuters quotes a law professor who says that's highly unusual for social-media companies and leaves users relatively powerless to obtain any legal remedies.
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Systrom's backtrack on Monday—entitled, "Thank you, and we're listening"—addressed none of these issues, probably because the press's premature, overheated, and under-reported attacks on the new terms largely overlooked them. Let's hope Instagram isn't finished listening just yet.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.