A mighty fuss broke out in December when the media accused Instagram of changing its terms of service to claim ownership of users’ pictures. In response, celebrities vowed to quit the popular photo-sharing service and, this being America, people started suing.
Two months later, what’s the fallout? Well, nothing. Instagram’s new rules went in place in January and the site appears popular as ever (based on my own experience and Facebook’s optimism on a recent earnings call). Meanwhile, Instagram this week issued a stinging rebuke to Lucy Funes, the California woman who is leading a class action suit against it.
In a filing to dismiss the suit, Instagram’s lawyers said the case was based on “wrongheaded, even frivolous, legal theories.” The document, reported by Reuters, added that Funes’ alleged injury was “self-inflicted” and pointed to “her failure to take the self-help measure of deleting her account.” (our emphasis)
The comments are harsh but also fair. Instagram, and every other social media company, is right when it points out that no one is forcing people to use their service and that, if you don’t like their rules, you can just leave. Instagram notes that Funes is still using the service.
This take-it-or-leave-it approach may be exasperating to consumers who feel powerless as Facebook and others turn them into product pitchmen (Instagram will follow suit soon enough). But for now, the licenses these companies impose ensure the law is on their side and, as long as people don’t pay for sites like Gmail and Twitter, advertising is the only option that will sustain them.
Unfortunately, companies that do try to be transparent about their advertising intentions are likely to be punished for their efforts. As Verge reporter and former copyright lawyer Nilay Patel explained in December, the controversy over Instagram only creates an incentive for companies to be obtuse or sneaky about their terms of service in the future.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that everything is okay. Instagram and the other companies do pose serious threats to our privacy, data and dignity. But until there is a system in which consumers have an option to pay these companies to leave us alone (would you pay $5 a month for ad-free Facebook? — I might), this is the world we’re stuck with.
The Instagram episode ultimately reflects a familiar pattern of hysteria, resignation and forgetting. There will be other examples soon enough.