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Instagram backlash a warning for small business to stay savvy on social media policies

Patrick Stafford /

Businesses have been warned to scrutinise the terms and policies of their respective social media accounts, following a massive backlash against Instagram after users believed new terms of service would allow the company to sell their private photos without consent.

But the incident is already being portrayed by some legal experts as overblown, as any differences between the old and new versions of Instragram’s terms of services are miniscule.

Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom has released a clarification, saying that Instagram users own their content and “does not claim any ownership rights over our photos”.

“Instagram users own their content and Instagram does not claim any ownership rights over your photos. Nothing about this has changed.”

The statement is an attempt to calm 24 hours of backlash on Twitter and Facebook about the changes, which had some people confused about whether the company could take private photos and then sell them for advertisements.

The incident was made worse by Facebook’s purchase of Instagram earlier this year – hawk-eyed privacy advocates have been waiting for a slip-up.

But the backlash should serve as a lesson for businesses, experts say, with many of them using Instagram accounts as part of their social profile.

“If you look around, there are plenty of businesses using Instagram in interesting ways,” says CP Communications founder Catriona Pollard.

“Nike, for instance, is a great brand that uses it very well as part of the social media mix. It can be quite effective.”

Many fashion companies also use Instagram to share pictures of products, while sports teams, retailers and even Starbucks are using the brand as part of the social media mix.

Pollard warns businesses they need to “be aware of what material is being used” on social media, so that companies don’t run into unexpected trouble.

The main trouble with Instagram’s new terms of service was an added clause:

“You agree that a business may pay Instagram to display your photos in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions without any compensation to you.”

But as some experts have already pointed out, Instagram has already had the ability to use and copy users’ photos, otherwise it wouldn’t be able to run its servers. And the existing terms and conditions already state that the company can place your content alongside advertising and promotions.

The difference now is that users are agreeing that someone else can pay to display your pictures in connection with paid and sponsored content. Instagram still can’t sell your photos.

Of course, the backlash has caused Systrom to backtrack and remove this specific language because people found it too ambiguous.

“Our main goal is to avoid things likes advertising banners you see in other apps that would hurt the Instagram user experience. Instead, we want to create meaningful ways to help you discover new and interesting accounts and content while building a self-sustaining business at the same time.”

Pollard says the reaction to the incident has shown why businesses need to get up to speed with these types of changes.

“Everyone is saying they’re jumping off Instagram, but it’s just a matter of stopping, reading the terms and conditions and then deciding, as an individual, am I comfortable with that?”

“The other thing too is that our definition of what is privacy and that material is changing, and that’s something we need to be aware of as well.”

But as Pollard points out, changes in terms and conditions that alter the fundamental nature of a service like Instagram must be discussed as part of a company’s social media strategy.

“We just need to acknowledge it and be clear about what’s going on.”

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Patrick Stafford

Patrick Stafford is a freelance journalist and a former deputy editor of SmartCompany.

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