It’s been a rough couple of weeks for Instagram— beyond being flooded with a slew of carefully filtered holiday shots, the recent Facebook acquisition has been caught in the middle of a firestorm of criticism and outrage over newly-proposed (and now defunct) Terms of Service.  The new terms created a near-instant Internet uproar that eventually led Instagram to renege on the majority of their updates, but questions still remain— is the photo app over 100 million users know and love just going through a few growing pains, or is it slowly evolving into an evil empire?

Like most Terms of Service documents, Instagram’s updates were lengthy, but there was a key section in particular that ignited the angry frenzy. “To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions,” it read, “you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.” Instagram also added that they “may not always identify paid services, sponsored content, or commercial communications as such.” In a nutshell, Instagram itself, or its advertisers, could use your photos and maybe your data in an array of display ads, and they would not have to tell you about it or pay you for it.

Everyone from Anderson Cooper to big-time hacker group Anonymous took to social channels to express their outrage. “I guess that no photo filter can hide what instagram’s new terms of use will mean for all of its users #fail,” tweeted Marie Claire Creative Director/”Project Runway” judge Nina Garcia. “@instagram Has the same privacy terms as @facebook | Delete your accounts now | #Anonymous |” read one of many urgings from Anonymous. However, the uproar may have been a bit blown out of proportion.

“Like every other company on the web that stores user data, Instagram has always had an expansive license to use and copy your photos,” says The Verge’s Nilay Patel. “It has to— that’s how it runs its networks of servers around the world.” Absolutely true—companies having broad access to your photos and data is simply a fact of life in the digital age. It would be naive to assume that social networks, websites, and the like never look at your pictures, information, and habits; not to mention use them, in some capacity, for their own gain. Even your bank shares your information with “select partners,” and that sharing probably doesn’t benefit you in the slightest. While we Mindgruvers don’t think it’s right, it is a reality. Patel goes on to explain that Instagram’s new terms put regulations much more in black and white for users and actually limits advertisers’ rights to photos. Instagram’s original terms allowed advertisers to modify pictures— “Instagram may place… advertising and promotions… on, about, or in conjunction with your content”— whereas new terms only allowed for displaying content.

Patel’s analysis came a couple of days before Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom took to the company blog to pen a “Thank you, and we’re listening” post. Systrom apologized for contributing to users becoming “confused and upset” and promised to “modify” incendiary sections of the new document. A day or so later, Systrom updated the Instagram blog with new advertising terms. “Because of the feedback we have heard from you, we are reverting this advertising section to the original version that has been in effect since we launched the service in October 2010.” Basically, users’ photos are back to being fair game for having ads “on, about, or in conjunction with” their content.

Before taking the time to do a little more digging into Instagram’s new terms, the Mindgruve office was buzzing and social media managers were taken aback— even the most rational media sure has a way of monopolizing on a public uprising. But, in comparing old/current to new/obsolete, we feel that we would have been better off without backtracking to the old terms. As was said earlier, it’s to be expected your favorite social networks are using you, and nothing in Instagram’s terms themselves has changed much. However, the corporate climate at Instagram has, in a big way. We all knew that “on, about, or in conjunction with” clause was there when we signed up, but more or less brushed it off.  Ads on Instagram weren’t a reality. Now, with the Facebook takeover, it’s only natural semi-questionable monetization tactics are somewhere down the pipeline, and we think that’s what scares people. As Patel says in a follow up to his first article, “(Instagram) just managed to score a round of positive press for retracting an unpopular change and give itself the ability to actually use photos in ads.” With lawsuits brewing and a new year upon us, it’s safe to say that while 2012 may have been an interesting year for Instagram, we ain’t seen nothing yet.


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