Online privacy lessons from the recent Instagram debacle

Whenever you buy a car or a house, there's always fine print – tiny lettering that people rarely read but causes many a headache. After all, the devil is in the details.

It's the buyers' responsibility to read the fine print and the terms and conditions, and make sure they are not being taken advantage of. It's okay to ask for help if the language is confusing. Most legal documents and service agreements use phrasing that would tie the average person's tongue in knots. So, seeking advice is actually … well, advisable.

The same applies to users of social media platforms. Take a look at the recent debacle with Instagram. The company that developed the popular photo-sharing service purchased by Facebook earlier this year – for a paltry $1 billion – recently rolled out a revised set of terms and conditions. The wording was so confusing that many legal experts cited by the tech media had difficulty sifting through it all, let alone the average user.

At several points throughout the document, it appeared that Instagram was saying it had ownership rights over your photos and that it could and would sell them for advertising purposes at will. Following the near instantaneous backlash that swung like a pendulum over the Web, Instagram has since clarified its position in an official blog post.

Company co-founder Kevin Systrom apologized for the confusion and said that some parts of the new conditions would be completely removed while others would be clarified to show that users own their own photos and Instagram will not sell them.

However, the lesson to be learned here is that social media sites amend their terms and conditions all the time. And users, often unknowingly, approve those revisions just by logging back into the social media site. People rarely read the updated terms, as they can be long, confusing documents that are easily ignored, leading to far worse privacy exposure than what Instagram is now apologizing for.

These days, online privacy only exists for those who proactively look to safeguard it. Your property, your reputation, your entire life can be made vulnerable if you don't take online privacy protection seriously.

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.