Technology & Science

The Instagram dust-up: Is anything really free online?

The recent Instagram controversy shows that no matter how seductive the internet can be, there is ultimately a cost to every keystroke or click, even if no money changes hands.
Instagram became the target outrage on Twitter and other sites after Facebook announced a change in its user agreement that hinted that it might use shared photos in ads. (Karly Domb Sado/Associated Press)

User outrage could hardly be contained earlier this month when Facebook suggested it would change some of the terms of service for its photo-sharing site, Instagram.

The ire raised by the thought that shared personal photos might be used in ads was hardly surprising.

Facebook itself is no stranger to privacy crises and it only seems natural that users of social media would get their dander up when something that seemed to be free might suddenly come with unexpected and very unappealing strings attached. 

The Instagram controversy, however, highlights a more universal truth: very little in life — online or otherwise — really is free.

No matter how seductive the internet can be, and how entitled users of various services may feel, there is ultimately a cost to every keystroke or click, even if no money changes hands.

"Those online service providers are asking for something in return," says David Fewer, director of the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic at the University of Ottawa.

"They're not providing their services for free and if you're not paying with money, you're paying with something else.

"That's true all the time whether they're using your images or just using the information they glean from your website or whether they're following you around on the internet in some way."

No surprises

The University of Ottawa's public interest clinic has long been critical of online services not being very upfront about how they utilize user information.

And Facebook has subsequently said it will change some of the wording on its new Instagram policy, which had users interpreting it to mean that the social networking service could sell uploaded photos or related information.

But as Fewer notes, "there's an exchange happening here, and it should be like when you go to buy something at a store you know what it's costing. 

The University of Ottawa's David Fewer. (CIPPIC / University of Ottawa)

"We get really outraged when the full costs aren't presented to us upfront," he says. 

Though he also notes that most people "don't seem to have the same ethic around non-financial costs and we ought to.

"We don't do as much work to find out the nonpecuniary costs of these services, and services themselves don't nearly enough work to communicate the terms of the exchange."

Even though internet sites provide their terms of use, and people have to click acceptance, how many people really pay attention to what they've agreed to?

Sidneyeve Matrix, a media professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., says "it's ridiculous" what's required to fully understand terms of service for mobile apps and social sites, and suggests you need a law degree, a background in computer science and a magnifying glass to figure these things out.

"Maybe in order to head off these kinds of massive push-backs and backlashes, start-ups will have to be more transparent and they'll have to provide terms of service that users understand."

Ultimately, though, money will enter into the equation.

"A lot of these start-ups get a critical mass of users by offering us a lot of bells and whistles for free whether it's photo filters or just really slickly designed apps," says Matrix.

"But as soon as they catch the attention of the big players like Facebook you know it becomes so important that they think about revenue generation and getting into the black. With Facebook, that always means selling our data and it bothers people so much."

Privacy settings

At the University of Ottawa privacy clinic, Fewer looks back in time to the old Internet Explorer web browser as a good example of a way an online service could ensure users are familiar with what will happen once they're on board.

"You couldn't install it before setting your privacy settings," he says.

"I always loved that you couldn't do it before talking about privacy and you couldn't install before actually communicating your privacy preferences."

So where does that leave the site user who doesn't have that legal degree or doesn't want to pay more — either through a fee or by having posted information somehow used by the service provider?

Fewer says the marketplace and the law can offer some relief.

"The best thing that can happen to a site that violates user expectations is that it loses customers," he says, noting, however, that it usually has to be something "big and bold" before a user revolt takes hold.

"Instagram was just very … rash in what they decided to do. They thought they could get away with anything, that they could rush to the Facebook model … and from what I understand they grabbed more than they needed in their terms of use and that was a big problem."

Hard to change

Had the proposed changes been done more incrementally, Fewer is concerned there might not have been a user revolt.

Other options for Canadians include launching privacy complaints or class-action lawsuits, but both those would require resources, expertise and experience often outside the realm of an individual.

"Class action is the ultimate discipline," says Fewer. "But it's a high hurdle" to initiate a class-action suit against large organizations.

Fewer says the discipline of the marketplace is "probably the best remedy we have," but it isn't absolute either.

The photo-sharing service Flickr stepped up promptly amid the Instagram controversy to tell potential users about the kind of service it offers in hopes of appearing more appealing than Instagram.

But then what happens if Flickr changes its terms of service down the road, too?

Even if the marketplace provides the best discipline, though, users upset with a site's policies may not feel they can ultimately leave.

"It's not like these services are necessarily freely transferable. It's a lot of work to change from Instagram … or to go from Facebook to Google Plus," says Fewer.

"The major issue is the network. People are on Facebook because their friends are on Facebook. That's where their network is.

"They're not necessarily on Facebook because of its wonderful services …or its unfailing responsiveness to consumer concerns. That's not why they're there and that's the biggest barrier to the marketplace functioning as it needs to function."