The Myth of the Free Internet

My personal Instagram ad.

Instagram has been making headlines this week after updating their Terms of Service contract. Users across the globe got their panties in a twist after finding out that their images could be used for advertising purposes. You had a right to be angry knowing that there was the possibility of having your images bought and sold without your consent. Sensing a public relations nightmare, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom quickly released a statement on his blog to clarify the changes. Although it was all generalized, it sounds like IG’s goal is not to sell your photo’s but allow companies to use the site as for advertising.

All this digital drama fascinated me for a couple reasons. Let’s say IG was in fact planning on using your photos in their ads or ads for other companies. I’m not sure why that is such a bad thing? Are people offended by the intrusion on their privacy or is it a copyright type of issue where they think their pictures are their property? If your sense of privacy was offended then you need to get a search committee together to find your common sense. The whole point is to share pictures with other people! There is nothing private about Instagram. By definition, it is the exact opposite of private. That leaves the ownership/copyright issue. I can understand that a little more and its especially true if you’re a professional photographer. (which I am not) However, if the case were ever to be heard in court, IG’s defense could be that the pictures where taken using their application and filters and due to that they in fact own the images. It’s not a bullet proof defense, but one to consider. Does a director own his movie or is it the studio who funded it? One last point on this topic: If Instagram was going to sell images, I guarantee mine (and yours) would not be one of them. Advertising is still the shallow generalized mass media beast it always was. The only people who need worry are skinny blond girls and hypster boys with Justin Bieber haircuts. Hairy gay belly lovers need not worry.

The other point I found intriguing was that a lot of people still believe the myth of the free internet. Quoting a article on the subject, “Metafilter user Blue_beetle famously put it in 2010: If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” That’s the real lesson of this story. Your mom was right, you can’t get something for nothing. Instagram is now owned by Facebook who wrote the book on shady misuse of user date. Do you really think your images are really that private on Facebook? Even with their (laughable) privacy settings, FB is data mining every aspect of your life. They are not the only ones either. One election night many experts cited President Obama’s data driven campaign as a key factor in his victory. I won’t bore you with the details here, but visit MIT Technology Review who did a very in depth article on the subject. The point is that your likes, dislikes, habits, and feelings are very valuable to big business. Free websites and applications still need to make money and most do that by selling advertising and/or date. The most common example of this is stores sharing your email address with other like retailers. I shop at Bath and Body Works and there for get the occasional mailing from Victoria’s Secret. It’s also no accident that I see ads for Gay dating sites and fashion retailers on my Facebook page. FB tracks what you like and tries to aim the ads accordingly. [Side note: It’s always funny when this goes wrong. Does anyone else get adds for women’s shoes on Growlr. Hilarious!]

In the end, you need to make a choice. Opt out by trying to stay off the ‘grid’ as much as possible or dive in knowing that the whole world is watching. If you can’t live without social media just remember your common sense. Don’t share anything you would not be willing to defend in court or to your mother.

In case you’re wondering, I would defend every word and dirty image I’ve every posted. Gasp!

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