Instagram policy changes: Lessons to learn from the uproar

Instagram’s cofounder backtracked Tuesday from the company's new terms of service after users and critics complained about the policy changes. Many believed Instagram's new terms of service would allow the company, now owned by Facebook, to sell your photos without your consent, a charge Instagram says is untrue. In addition to regular users, concern over Instagram's new service terms prompted notable personalities and organizations to rethink using the photo-sharing service including Kim Kardashian, Anderson Cooper, Rosario Dawson and the National Geographic Society.

Instagram says it plans to revise its new terms, which are set to go into effect January 16, and will make it clear that the company does not plan to sell your photos. It's not clear how many users plan on dumping Instagram over this latest terms of service kerfuffle, but chances are, similar to the countless Facebook debacles, few people will follow through and delete their account.

If anything, Instagram's trials over the past few days are a rite of passage reserved for only the most popular and beloved online services. It probably won't hurt the company this time, but what can Instagram learn to avoid privacy and data ownership issues like this in the future? Here are a few suggestions.

Instagram is not Facebook

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Instagram's revised terms of service debacle is a classic Facebook move: revise your policies or services, wait for the backlash, and then backtrack a little bit. Facebook has done this time and again with Facebook Beacon, privacy policy debacles and terms of service debates. The result is that while many people use Facebook because of its popularity, very few people seem to trust the company's motives. This is a path Instagram doesn't want to go down. The photo-sharing network has built up a lot of good will by creating an interesting service that people love to use. Instagram shouldn’t throw that away by pushing the envelope on privacy and terms of service changes.

Don't do tomorrow what you can do today

First, Instagram on came out with a short, almost dismissive blog post, saying its terms of service had changed. The company followed that up on Tuesday with a much longer post that was more explicit about its intentions and promised to remove some of the language that caused so much uproar. Next time, Instagram should skip the outrage phase by clearly explaining its plans the first time.

Drop the hubris

Instagram's second blog post was off to a great start, but then the company added, “legal documents are easy to misinterpret.” The subtext of that statement is: “you've totally got it all wrong, but we're changing the parts you didn't like anyway.” Just don't go there, Instagram. The second blog post would have been just as strong and clear without that sentence. It was superfluous, somewhat antagonizing, and very close to Facebook's classic response to privacy issues by apologizing for how things were perceived instead of for the issues themselves.

Bad news is good news...for the competition

Instagram's privacy flap is also inspiring discussion of alternatives to the photo-sharing network such as Flickr (featuring a newly revamped iOS app ), PicYou, and Hipstamatic. Unlike Facebook, which dominates the social networking world, Instagram is a popular choice among many for adding filters and sharing photos online.

Criticisms aside, Instagram appears to be very sincere about responding to user concerns.

“I always want you to feel comfortable sharing your photos on Instagram,” the company's cofounder, Kevin Systrom, said on its blog. “And we will always work hard to foster and respect our community and go out of our way to support its rights.”

Instagram says revisions to its upcoming terms of service are coming soon.

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