Instagram Backs Off New Photo Policy–But Here’s How It Might Really Make Money

Image representing Kevin Systrom as depicted i...

Instagram cofounder Kevin Systrom (Image: CrunchBase)

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Not surprisingly, the Facebook-owned mobile photo-posting service Instagram has backed off the language in its new privacy and terms of service policies that set off a firestorm online. The worry was that people’s Instagram photos could be sold without users getting compensated (never really true) or could be used in ads (which did certainly look likely).

Apparently, neither will be the case, at least for now. Instagram cofounder Kevin Systrom just posted on the company’s blog under the title “Thank you, and we’re listening”:

I’m writing this today to let you know we’re listening and to commit to you that we will be doing more to answer your questions, fix any mistakes, and eliminate the confusion. As we review your feedback and stories in the press, we’re going to modify specific parts of the terms to make it more clear what will happen with your photos.

Legal documents are easy to misinterpret. So I’d like to address specific concerns we’ve heard from everyone:

Advertising on Instagram From the start, Instagram was created to become a business. Advertising is one of many ways that Instagram can become a self-sustaining business, but not the only one. Our intention in updating the terms was to communicate that we’d like to experiment with innovative advertising that feels appropriate on Instagram. Instead it was interpreted by many that we were going to sell your photos to others without any compensation. This is not true and it is our mistake that this language is confusing. 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 then provides clues to how Instagram might really make money from advertising on the site:

To provide context, we envision a future where both users and brands alike may promote their photos & accounts to increase engagement and to build a more meaningful following. Let’s say a business wanted to promote their account to gain more followers and Instagram was able to feature them in some way. In order to help make a more relevant and useful promotion, it would be helpful to see which of the people you follow also follow this business. In this way, some of the data you produce — like the actions you take (eg, following the account) and your profile photo — might show up if you are following this business.

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. Our main goal is to avoid things likes advertising banners you see in other apps that would hurt the Instagram user experience. Instead, we want to create meaningful ways to help you discover new and interesting accounts and content while building a self-sustaining business at the same time.

So it seems that whatever advertising Instagram does, it will be quite a bit like Facebook’s Sponsored Stories, or even precisely like them. Although that won’t comfort people who don’t like the possibility that their actions can become an ad, they’re already subject to those terms if they use Facebook.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Instagram follow Facebook’s well-worn playbook, which calls for the company to push the envelope, then back off a bit, rinse, repeat. But for now, pending future changes, your cute cat photos are safe from becoming ads for your local pet salon.

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