December 24, 2012

Hidden costs of 'free' social media sites

Morning Sentinel Staff

Instagram, the wildly popular online photo-sharing company, just made its 100 million-plus user base very angry.

Last Monday, Instagram released an "update" to its terms of service and privacy policies that will go into effect Jan. 16.

Buried among the usual paragraphs of legalese was this remarkable paragraph.

Instagram's new terms also included this sneaky sentence: "You acknowledge that we may not always identify paid services, sponsored content, or commercial communications as such."

In other words, when you upload photos to Instagram, you're waiving your rights to control how those photos are displayed. Specifically, when you upload a photo, you should expect that a company that's bought advertising services from Instagram can use your photo in their "display" without further permission.

If you take a picture of yourself and your friends at a favorite restaurant, don't be surprised if that photo pops up again on Instagram under the restaurant's own photo feed, along with some of the restaurant's advertising text.

There was some user outrage about the sponsored posts, but it quickly died down. For the most part, Facebook users are coming to understand that in exchange for getting the social media site "for free," it's the users, in turn, who have become "the product" -- to be data-mined, scrutinized and otherwise manipulated by commercial services.

Since Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion in April, it was only natural that this company, too, soon would be forced to find ways to maximize revenue through its only asset -- the users. Nothing is free, despite what a generation of Internet users has grown to expect.

The lesson from the Instagram story is: If you're a user of any "free" social media site, educate yourself on what it's doing with your information.

One way or another, you're going to have to pay.

-- San Francisco Chronicle,

Dec. 18

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