SAN FRANCISCO — Instagram, which spurred suspicions this week that it would sell user photos after revising its terms of service, has sparked renewed debate about how much control over personal data users must give up to live and participate in a world steeped in social media.
In forcefully establishing a new set of usage terms, Instagram, the massively popular photo-sharing service owned by Facebook, has claimed some rights that have been practically unheard of among its prominent social media peers, legal experts and consumer advocates say.
All told, the revised terms reflect a new, draconian grip over user rights, experts say.
"This is all uncharted territory," said Jay Edelson, a partner at the Chicago law firm Edelson McGuire. "If Instagram is to encourage as many lawsuits as possible and as much backlash as possible, then they succeeded."
Instagram’s new policies, which go into effect on January 16, lay the groundwork for the company to begin generating advertising revenue by giving marketers the right to display profile pictures and other personal information, such as who users follow, in advertisements.
The new terms, which allow an advertiser to pay Instagram "to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata)" without compensation, triggered an outburst of complaints on the web on Tuesday from users upset that Instagram would make money from their uploaded content.
The uproar prompted a lengthy blog post from the company to "clarify" the changes, with CEO Kevin Systrom saying the company had no current plans to incorporate photos taken by users into ads.
Instagram declined comment beyond its blog post, which failed to appease critics including National Geographic, which suspended new posts to Instagram.
"We are very concerned with the direction of the proposed new terms of service and if they remain as presented we may close our account," said National Geographic, an early Instagram adopter.
Consumer advocates said Facebook was using Instagram’s aggressive new terms to push the boundaries of how social media sites can make money while its own hands were tied by recent agreements with regulators and class-action plaintiffs.
Under the terms of a 2011 settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, Facebook is required to get user consent before personal information is shared beyond their privacy settings. A preliminary class-action lawsuit settlement with Facebook allows users to opt out of being included in the "sponsored stories" ads that use their personal information.
Under Instagram’s new terms, users who want to opt out must simply quit using the service.
"Instagram has given people a pretty stark choice: take it or leave, and if you leave it, you’ve got to leave the service," said Kurt Opsahl, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a internet user rights group.
What is more, he said, if users initially agree to the new terms but then have a change of mind, their information could still be used for commercial purposes.
In a post on its official blog on Tuesday, Instagram did not address another controversial provision that states that if a child under the age of 18 uses the service, then it is implied that his or her parent has tacitly agreed to Instagram’s terms.
"The notion is that minors can’t be bound to a contract. And that also means they can’t be bound to a provision that says they agree to waive the rights," said Mr Opsahl.
Blocking class-action suits
While Facebook continues to be bogged down in its own class-action suit, Instagram took preventive steps to avoid a similar legal morass.
Its new terms of service require users with a legal complaint to enter arbitration, rather than take the company to court. It prohibits users from joining a class-action lawsuit unless they mail a written "opt-out" statement to Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park within 30 days of joining Instagram.
That provision is not included in terms of service for other leading social media companies such as Twitter, Google, YouTube or even Facebook itself, and it immunises Instagram from many forms of legal liability, said Michael Rustad, a professor at Suffolk University Law School.
Prof Rustad, who has studied the terms of services for 157 social media services, said just 10 contained provisions prohibiting class-action lawsuits.
The clause effectively cripples users who want to challenge the company legally because lawyers are not likely to represent an individual plaintiff, Prof Rustad said.
"No lawyers will take these cases," he said. "In consumer arbitration cases, everything is stacked against the consumer. It’s a pretense, it’s a legal fiction, that there are remedies."
Instagram, which has 100-million users, allows consumers to tweak the photos they take on their smartphones and share the images with friends. Facebook acquired Instagram in September for $715m.
Instagram’s take-it-or-leave-it policy pushes the envelope for how social networking companies treat user privacy issues, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
"I think Facebook is probably using Instagram to see how far it can press this advertising model," said Mr Rotenberg. "If they can keep a lot of users, then all those users have agreed to have their images as part of advertising."