Instagram took the lazy, sneaky way out

Congratulations, internet: your often-ugly filtered photos are safe. Instagram's decision to backtrack on its contentious Terms of Service changes have rolled back the clock to how things used to be, the halcyon days of another usage policy you didn't actually bother reading. Maybe it's a victory for a vocal user-base, but it also seems a missed opportunity for a legitimately useful change in how our rights are expressed in an age where the cloud has become all-pervasive.

As turnabouts go, it came as little surprise. Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom took to the company blog to thank his users for feeling "so strongly" that they gave "constructive feedback to help us build a better product." Furious account deletion and a gush of people rediscovering their old Flickr accounts weren't mentioned; instead, Systrom said, "there was confusion and real concern about what our possible advertising products could look like and how they would work."

Philip Berne has already written about some reasonable assumptions Terms of Service authors should make when they're putting together a policy. Common sense things like "the user's stuff belongs to the user"; that, Instagram has been keen to point out at each step, is what the company's own policy does say, but the florid language means it's tough for regular users to take them at their word.

Are we inherently mistrustful of legalese? The irony is that we're quick to hit "Accept" as soon as possible and get on with using software and services, generally without reading a single word of what's put in front of us; we only get worked up when someone specifically points out the vague implications of that legalese, mustering a snowballing sense of outrage along the way.

Thing is, the track record of companies trying to streamline complex Terms of Service into something more user-friendly isn't great. Google tried it earlier this year, hoping to pull the sixty-odd disparate policies its ever-spawning services required into a single agreement with more user-friendly phrasing, and the move earned it privacy advocate outcry and the threat of governmental censure in at least one European country.

[aquote]Instagram had an opportunity to do some legalese trimming[/aquote]

Instagram had an opportunity to do its own legalese trimming. The company may have sold to Facebook for $1bn, but it's still a lot more straightforward than Google's portfolio of services, and it could have opted to express its expectations of users – and what expectations they can legitimately have of it – in a matter-of-fact way. Instead, Systrom simply hit the roll-back button, and basically said the company would just wait until the next round of changes to update the policy. It delayed the challenge, rather than facing it head on.

So that's the lazy part; why sneaky? Clarity too often comes hand-in-hand with a change in user rights: companies use it as an umbrella to introduce other changes. In Google's case, that was a loosening of the rules about what data used by one service could be shared with other services registered to the same account. For Instagram, it was a somewhat nebulous change in advertising policies that opened the door to unspecified money-making schemes down the line.

Instagram knows it screwed that part up – "rather than obtain permission from you to introduce possible advertising products we have not yet developed," Systrom wrote, "we are going to take the time to complete our plans, and then come back to our users and explain how we would like for our advertising business to work" – and whether you see it as patronizing or simply blame-shifting depends on your comfort levels around entrusting elements of your digital life to a third-party.

Systrom and his team (and Facebook, of course) are returning to the drawing board to pin down exactly what these "possible advertising products" might be, but the core issue remains. Terms of Service are confusing and people don't read them: they just react with outrage when someone tells them to be livid, while companies only seem to care about addressing that when there's coincidentally something to be gained for them along the way. Instagram had an opportunity to take the lead in revolutionizing online contract confusion, but for all it talks of wanting to "communicate our intentions clearly" the only change has been a step backwards.