Instagram vs consumers: Who really won?

Previously, we discussed the whole Instagram debacle over the changes made to its terms and conditions. When company founder Kevin Systrom announced via blog post that he listened to the feedback from users and reverted a section dealing with advertising back to its original version, many thought they had won a solid victory. But did they?

Nilay Patel argues in a recent article for The Verge that this may not be the case, and his reasoning is sound.

"That certainly sounds like a win for consumers, but it's actually a loss: the newly reinstated terms of service clause is objectively worse for users than the new one, and it's worded far more vaguely – the language feels familiar and comforting, but you're giving up more rights to your photos," Patel writes.

As he points out, while the new language allowed Instagram to display photos in connection with advertising, the original terms let the company place advertising "on, about, or in conjunction with" user photos.

He goes on to add that the real winner in this situation is Instagram, because not only did the company look good for nixing an unpopular policy, but this will be highlighted by businesses everywhere to advocate the use of vaguely worded legal language that is difficult for users to understand.

When online service providers make their terms and conditions so vague, convoluted and wrapped in "legalese" to the point where the customer has no clue what it means, how are they expected to know when changes are for better or worse?

Most companies would prefer that their customers pay for their goods and services but not pay attention to the terms and conditions. However, we as consumers should NOT be eager to comply with these wishes. When people consider online data security they often only think of bank accounts, social security numbers and passwords. But the pictures and posts we share on social media platforms are very personal pieces of data that can be used for fraud and other ways of damaging our online reputation.

Consumers need to take responsibility for letting companies know that it is not okay to covertly assume control over so much of a user's identity (including photos, posts, updates, friend networks, etc.). On the other hand, businesses should recognize that their purpose is to serve their users, not just the vendors that want access to their browsing breadcrumbs. Otherwise, at some point, there will be no users left that will trust the company's intentions. 

John Sileo is an online privacy expert and keynote speaker on social media privacy, identity theft and fraud. His clients included the Department of Defense, Pfizer, and Homeland Security. See his recent work on 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper and Fox Business.