Instagram dials back new privacy rules after user revolt

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
The Lookout

NEW YORK—Instagram sought to calm a growing furor among its more than 7 million users by saying it would clarify a new, controversial privacy policy. The policy would have given the popular Facebook-owned service the ability to profit from and control images posted through the popular photo-sharing app.

On Tuesday, the company announced it would reword language from the policy and terms of service that said: “A business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos … and/or any other actions you take … without any compensation to you.” Announced Monday, the rule had been set to go into effect on Jan. 16—and was interpreted by many users to mean that Instagram would take user photos and sell them.

But Kevin Systrom, an Instagram co-founder, wrote in a post on the company's blog that it was never the company's intention to sell photos but rather to use a customer's information to allow businesses and other users to advertise to them as a way of gaining followers. He called the initial wording of the agreement "confusing" and "our mistake."

"To be clear: It is not our intention to sell your photos. We are working on updated language in the terms to make sure this is clear," Systrom wrote. "The language we proposed also raised question about whether your photos can be part of an advertisement. We do not have plans for anything like this, and because of that we’re going to remove the language that raised the question."

It was not immediately clear, however, if Instagram's peace offering would be enough to appease thousands of users who were in open revolt over the app's proposed rule changes. Monday's announcement had sent many of the photo-sharing app’s most prolific users into a frenzy, prompting dozens of celebrities and well-known photographers who have adopted Instagram as a journalistic tool to threaten to delete their accounts. (Full disclosure: I am an enthusiastic user of Instagram, having posted on it more than 1,000 photos of the 2012 presidential campaign.)

On Tuesday, Ben Lowy, a photojournalist who has used Instagram to document everything from Superstorm Sandy to the war in Libya for outlets including Time magazine, uploaded a photo of his son holding a handmade sign that said “Goodbye” and cross-posted it to his Tumblr account with a message.

“This is my son Mateo. Photography is how I provide for him, clothe him, put him in school,” Lowy, a photographer for Reportage by Getty Images, wrote. “Photography is my passion, my calling, and my means of livelihood. Now Instagram and Facebook want to take my hard earned imagery and use it to generate income for themselves. What they have done is signal the end and failure of what could have been a revolutionary social media platform for visual communication.”

Meanwhile, thousands of other Instagram users—including celebrities—took to Twitter to complain about the company’s rule change, using hashtags like #boycottinstagram. Actress Tiffani Thiessen, famous for her role as Kelly Kapowski on the '90s sitcom “Saved by the Bell,” wrote that she was “really sad” to delete her Instagram account because of the company’s “ridiculous new terms.” Her message was followed by one from actress Mia Farrow, who sought to project zen to her nearly 80,000 Twitter followers. “Trust me, deleting your Instagram account is satisfying,” she wrote.

Even the hacker group Anonymous weighed in on Instagram’s decision—suggesting through Twitter that users should delete their accounts.

On the Instagram app, hundreds of users protested the company’s power grab by posting screenshots of the new user agreement and tagging them “good-bye” or “boycottinstagram.” But Instagram had apparently disabled the “boycottinstagram” tag.

The controversy came after what had been a banner year for Instagram, which saw its popularity explode as people began using their camera phones to document every aspect of their lives. Instagram’s app had been praised for its simplicity; its software simply allows users to take a photo, apply a filter (or not) and share it on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr with just a few taps of a button.

Instagram’s soaring popularity quickly attracted a major suitor. In April, Facebook purchased the startup in a deal estimated to be worth as much as $1 billion. The deal was finalized in September—and Instagram’s new terms of service echo those implemented by Facebook, which has also angered users by taking ownership of photos posted to the site.

Officials at Instagram did not respond to a request for comment about its user complaints. But Systrom's message was clearly aimed at trying to curb bad publicity. He thanked Instagram users for airing their concerns.

"We need to be clear about changes we make—this is our responsibility to you," he wrote. "One of the main reasons these documents don’t take effect immediately, but instead 30 days from now, is that we wanted to make sure you had an opportunity to raise any concerns. You’ve done that and are doing that, and that will help us provide the clarity you deserve."