Instagram: why it's worth your PR team giving your T&Cs a quick skim read

The uproar over Instagram in the last 24 hours shows the volatility new media businesses face when attempting the transition from fun, friendly start-up to becoming a sustainable business.

Ronan Shields

Instagram yesterday (18 December) updated its user terms with renewed wording leading users to believe that it intended to ‘sell’ their photos from 16 January next year in a move prompting a mass outcry on social media.

However, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom quickly moved to allay these fears issuing a statement the same day claiming the updated T&Cs had been “misinterpreted” and that the photo-sharing site would further clarify its usage terms.

“Our intention in updating the terms was to communicate that we’d like to experiment with innovative advertising that feels appropriate on Instagram,” reads the post. “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.”

So, panic over and we can all go back to adding a vintage tinge to our smartphone pics but yesterday afternoon it was very much touch-and-go for the photo-sharing service which famously sold to Facebook for $1bn (£630m) with little in the way of a sustainable business model.

Rival social network Twitter was awash with threats of a mass exodus with stories even emanating from the pages of tech-focused titles all the way to the mainstream press and Systrom’s conciliatory tone denotes the panic .

No doubt the updated terms and conditions will be joint production from Facebook and Instagram’s legal and PR team in order to stem any further negative publicity.

Instagram’s brief flirtation with disaster also shows the scale of the challenge faced by new media businesses as they have to become more business-like to maintain their operations – as opposed to burning through VC cash.

However, it appears that users are quick to voice their concerns over such commercialism and the impact of social media only increases the potential for a PR disaster.

But the fact is that businesses like Instagram, Foursquare and the countless other digital media start-ups out there simply have to start generating money and in the online world and more than anywhere else that involves monetising user data.

The public is notoriously unwilling to pay for goods and content online compared to the physical world so in my opinion such businesses are faced with little choice; either monetise your user data or pick up your P45.

A third party statement sent to me as part of the media furore that accompanied the Instagram debate pretty much sums it all up.

Vanessa Barnett, technology and media lawyer at Charles Russell LLP, says: “There’s no free lunch on the internet and the modern currency is not pounds, shillings and pence but personal data.

“What matters, and what the law says, is that if you collect and use personal data, you need to be transparent about it.  As long as we have transparency, we also have free will.”

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