Note to the Valley: no, I am not your ‘product’

By Matthew Bostock on December 18th, 2012

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of smug tech bloggers spouting platitudes like, “if you’re not paying, you’re the product”, as if that excuses every privacy infraction ever committed by internet businesses. Well, I’m sorry, but it doesn’t.

Yesterday, Instagram changed its terms of service. Now under the wing of Facebook, the TOS rehash allows the company access to your user name, likes, uploaded photos, and actions. They can all now be sold onto third parties for advertising purposes. That photo of you grinning over lunch? It could be used in an ad for diarrhoea pills. I mean, it probably won’t, but it might.

Disgruntled users have taken to Twitter to vent their frustration. Not just start-up folk, but members of the general public, too. One tweet sums up the collective feeling nicely: “Download photos. Kill account.” Many seem to be toying with a switch to Flickr, following the release of its new iOS app earlier this week. It’s the first major update Yahoo! has made to Flickr since Marissa Mayer took the helm.

Scouring my Twitter feed this morning, I landed on this absolute monstrosity: an article on Gizmodo whose elegant title says it all: “Stop Whining About Your Personal Data on Instagram You Little Whiny Baby”. The author’s argument boils down to: “Hey, the app is free and the company needs to make money, so stop bitching.” I have a problem with this.

I don’t feel obliged to give Instagram access to and free use of my pictures. I shouldn’t pick up the bill just because they didn’t figure out how to make money from the beginning. (If Instagram had charged me, even a small amount, from day one, our relationship would be very different.)

The piece reads like I have no say in the matter, like I’m already penned in. Time after time, we see companies doing data grabs like this. And you know what? Many users are persuaded into accepting that it’s the way the economics of the internet work, because blogs like Gizmodo say so.

Companies like Facebook leverage their users’ naiveté to devastating effect. They screw us around, repeatedly changing the terms of our deal with them after we think everything’s nicely settled. A photo that you posted privately in 2009, for example, could suddenly find its way under the cursor of millions a year later.

Although Instagram’s changes will only apply to your actions after January next year, how many of its 100 million users will even hear about the change? How many other social networks retroactively impose changes on what you share? If it’s not this, it’s limiting what other parties can do with the data held by a company—shepherding our stuff into their hands.

Here’s a question for the social network apologists: how is it in a technology company’s own best interest to treat its users like morons? When does violating privacy in order to make money take prevalence over the one thing you should hold dear—the user’s good will?

As start-ups struggle to figure out how they will make money, many turn to cases like this for validation that “enter free, charge later” is just. But if Instagram’s backlash is anything to go by, even the service that has 100 million users isn’t getting off the hook that easily.

I care about these photos. They are my photos. Into my account I have entrusted memories of spending my time with my family, my dog, my girlfriend, and my colleagues. They may not be important to other people, but they are to me.

Instagram cannot just do what it wants with them. Yes, I published them for the world to see. But I didn’t give away the right for you to use my girlfriend in an advert for Diet Coke.

At the end of the day, we have a choice. We shouldn’t start accepting these types of intrusions in our personal lives. Start-ups should take common decency into account as they look to monetise, because engendering trust is key to forging long-standing, profitable relationships.

Changes like the ones Instagram just made are the reason so many of us distrust social networking sites with our personal data. They’re the reason we use Facebook grudgingly, because, although it’s a brilliant product, we don’t really trust it.

Don’t tell me I’m a product just because I don’t pay a subscription fee. I’m not: I’m a human being, and that’s my life and my loved ones you’re playing fast and loose with.

The tide is turning. The social media wave has crested. And we won’t put up with this roughshod behaviour for ever.