Public relations: Instagram flap teaches importance of understanding those 'terms of use'

Contributing ColumnistJanuary 28, 2013 

Ann Marie van den Hurk is an award-winning, accredited public relations professional and principal of Mind the Gap Public Relations.

Instagram, the hot photo-sharing social network, found out the hard way recently just how vocal some upset customers can become.

When the company changed its terms of use, it triggered a backlash from many of its millions of users globally. The company had sought to retroactively take legal ownership of the private photos that users had uploaded, as well as grant itself the right to make money off of them.

Outraged users loudly voiced their concerns and called for a mass exodus, though it's unclear if one occurred. The anger was so widespread that the platform backed away from the changes and co-founder Kevin Systrom posted, "It is not our intention to sell your photos."

The kerfuffle illustrates again that when we sign up for social networks, most of us are on auto-pilot just clicking along and filling out information so we can join as quickly as possible. But it's important to read and understand terms of use and terms of content on social networks.

Here's a sample of what you agreed to when joining Facebook:

"For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (IP content), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it."

If you were to review the terms of other popular social networks, they basically say much the same.

But what does it all actually mean? It means that while you own your content such as photos and videos, you are giving these sites a license to use them as they see fit. And that could be for advertising purposes without any need to notify you.

For example, if you post a photo of a restaurant, the social network could use that picture in a promotion to a general audience or your friends.

It also means you, as a user, must pay close attention to your privacy settings.

Users have become accustomed to everything online being free, but free does come with a price, and it's often privacy. Social networks are looking for ways to grow revenue and one way to make money without charging is to monetize the content.

But the Instagram backlash shows there's a disconnect between users and social networks when it comes to privacy expectations and the reality of how an online service remains free.

There are bigger issues at play here. As Geoff Livingston, author and marketing strategist, shares, "Instagram violated the basic tenets of permission and data privacy for marketing, forcing people to surrender their photos for commercialization."

"In doing so, Instagram not only upset typical privacy boundaries but also transcended anger to the ferocious level people display when their mobile experience is violated," Livingston said.

It comes down to trust. That trust was broken, and it takes time to recover.

The reaction also revealed how little users know about terms of use. Most users either don't read the legal language or just glance at it before clicking "agree" based on an informal survey I conducted on the topic. Most who took the survey shared they were annoyed with Instagram's changes, but they realize that by using a free service they are giving up certain rights to their content.

The lesson learned from Instagram is users must educate themselves about what they're signing up for when they join a site. You should know how your content is being used and then make the educated choice about whether to move forward.

For organizations, it's important to explain what the legal terminology means in lay terms and then communicate early and often when changes are taking place.

As social platforms continue to look for ways to make money, this issue is going to continue to be a challenge.

Ann Marie van den Hurk is an award-winning, accredited public relations professional specializing in small businesses and is principal of Mind the Gap Public Relations. She proudly called Lexington home but now lives in North Carolina. She is also the author of the upcoming book Social Media Crisis Communications: Preparing for, Preventing, and Surviving a Public Relations #FAIL. Email her at ann@mindthegappr.com, or follow her on Twitter at @amvandenhurk.

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