Instagram Reverts to Original Terms, World Apparently Ending Again

Bryan Bishop, reporting for The Verge:

Despite the public reaction, it's important to note that some of the changes Instagram suggested were actually improvements, outlining what the company could do in narrow, specific terms. The proposed tweaks made it very clear that advertisers, for example, couldn't just stick their logo on one of your photos and use it as an Instagram ad. The language the company's going back to is so broad that such use isn't out of the realm of possibility — and in that sense today's development is actually a loss for users. That's to say nothing of the rather gaping transparency hole left in the "Rights" section: a line that states Instagram never has to directly identify advertisements or sponsored content to users in the first place.

I promised myself that I was done with my coverage of the Instagram debacle, but this development is just an unavoidable conglomeration of embarrassing reporting, hyperbole, baited headlines, and misinformation. 

For full effect, let's recap the chronological events surrounding Instagram from this past week:

  1. On Monday, December 17, Instagram announced that it was making overdue updates to its Terms of Service (last updated in October, 2010). In the announcement, little was said aside from a statement of reassurance over photo ownership rights. Importantly, these changes were scheduled to go into effect on January 16, 2013 — not immediately.
  2. Upon noticing the changes, armchair lawyers began to pore over the minute intricacies of the legal document. Noticing vague statements about advertising and rights, journalists tripped over themselves to cast the most negative spin on the harmless legal stipulations. Because, well, Facebook? Something like that, anyway.
  3. The following day, having presumably finished banging his head squarely against a wall for 24 hours, Nilay Patel surfaced with an article utterly dispelling all of the hyperbole, misplaced negativity, and general lack of comprehension surrounding the Terms of Service. Patel assured Instagram users that the Terms of Service was not, in fact, the harbinger of the Mayan apocalypse, but actually a fairly reasonable improvement upon the preceding document.
  4. Almost simultaneously, the most long-form article taking advantage of the situation was published by Wired. Meanwhile, at about this moment, average users of Instagram were reposting wistful, sepia-toned screenshots of the offending portions of the Terms of Service. Others took to Twitter to opine about what Instagram's "suicide note" meant for Flickr and 500px.
  5. Soon after Patel's article was published, Kevin Systrom, Instagram co-founder and CEO, took to the Instagram Blog to make an official statement. Clarifying the new rules, Systrom explained that the questionable statements actually disallowed advertisers from appropriating photographs, amongst other things.
  6. The following day, Wednesday, December 19, the matter was mostly over with. Snarky bloggers, myself included, took the opportunity to deride the repeated tendency toward the fear-mongering displayed by large-scale publications and armchair professionals, but little more was to be said.
  7. Today, Friday, December 21, however, Kevin Systrom has posted a further update to the Instagram Blog announcing that the company will be reverting to its October, 2010 Terms of Service. In doing so, it's Systrom's stated intention that he and his company will solidify monetization plans before introducing updated legal terms. This will allow users to truly comprehend the extent of the company's plans without any guesswork.

Now, mere days after journalists were inaccurately babbling about the misperceived dangers of the new terms, Bryan Bishop has proudly announced that reverting to the old Terms of Service is dangerous. Granted, Bishop is a writer for The Verge — the source of the initial salvo of legally-justified rationale earlier this week — but the tone rings resoundingly poorly with me.

Instagram, confronted by thousands upon thousands of misled users, was forced into a public relations nightmare. This was largely incited by a core grouping of alarmist journalists who spend their days twitching over "BREAKING" macros and publish buttons. Given the circumstance, however, it's understandable why the news spread so quickly. We're in the midst of a slow news cycle and some sort of harmful stipulations from a Facebook property were far too good to pass up, let alone allow dozens of other publications to publish without doing the same.

But, today, after all that we've been through, we once again see a publication attempting to cast a negative spin onto something temporary and harmless. An action which, less than three days ago, users and journalists were both clamoring for.

Yes, we're aware that the new Terms of Service was, after all, a significant improvement upon its predecessor. But, at the same time, the mere fact that such panic could've been prompted by basic language suggests that there is plenty of room for clarity and revision. In other words, there is plenty of due cause and logic beneath a decision to hold off on a Terms of Service revision — which was not scheduled to become active until mid-January — until the language and purpose can be fully articulated.

As of writing, Bishop's article, "Instagram reverts terms of service after public outcry, makes them arguably worse," is sitting atop The Verge's featured articles on the front page. With a ludicrously misleading and controversy-laden headline, a matter-of-fact pull quote, "Today's news is actually a loss for users," and a tiny admission at the end of the article that, of course, Instagram has weeks to offer new language before its current changeover date, the whole article sits extremely poorly with me.

The message to be taken away from this is simple: Instagram is actively pursuing clarity in its Terms of Service. Furthermore, Systrom has a desire to fully develop the company's monetization plan before enacting any further policy changes. In English, that means Instagram is still on the same trajectory, it has the same terms as it has for two years without offending you, and it's attempting to ensure clarity and accountability for its users.

I'm not saying that the as-yet-unseen document Instagram is drafting will be good. Equally, I'm not saying that Instagram's monetization method will be gracious and without offense. I'm simply highlighting the fact that Instagram's moves — when you strip away the media-driven hyperbole and spin — make perfect sense. The new terms, if they'd gone unnoticed or without outrage, would've benefitted us as users. Conversely, the old terms which we've lived under for two years — and continue to live under today — will surely be acceptable for a little longer. Adding clarity to a user-benefitting document and displaying accountability for perceived mistakes is an unquestionably good thing.

Publications are invariably going to continue to dodge the blame for their gross inaccuracies earlier this week and Instagram's retraction is likely going to be fuel to reach that end. But, given all that we've learned this week, perhaps we can survive one day without breaking out the Internet crisis weapons and hyperbole.

There's really nothing to see here.