Instagrab / by Graham Dew

There is, as they say, no such thing as a free lunch. Instagram’s announcement this week was the equivalent of asking you around for lunch then letting slip after the main course that they were going to sell your coat to pay for the meal.

One thing that happens with computing or tech is that critical mass soon swells over into dominant if not monopolistic mass. Despite several pretenders to the throne twenty years ago, Microsoft Office is the only office suite that anyone uses these days. Photoshop dominates image editing; likewise Mathcad for scientific modelling, and the same is true in every discipline and niche. These long established, pre-internet programs got to where they are by different technical and marketing routes, but all share one feature in common; they are paid for in cash. Functionality, compatibility, reliability are all key factors. Now we live in a world where much of the functionality and data in computing resides in remote unknown servers somewhere on the internet. The only way these online applications and services can get established and dislodge the incumbent program is when they are offered ‘free’ or at no financial cost. Generally, what the service providers want from us the users is volume; lots and lots of users, in exchange for the opportunity to advertise to a captive market. The more clever providers, like Google and Amazon, also seek some data that allows them to create more accurately targeted, more qualified leads for a range of goods and services.

For me, the exchange with Google is a fair one; they have a profile of me; my demographic, my tastes and interests. In exchange I get access to free email, free blogging and a host of utilities that I use all the time, the pre-eminent one being search. The advertising I have to put up with is largely not intrusive and sometimes even useful. The terms and conditions seem OK to me.

Instagram is a photosharing web service, built onto the back of an image editing app for smartphones. In today’s brave new world of photography, it has become easier to post and share photos than it is to write messages. No wonder the social media players were interested in the Instagram phenomenon. Facebook famously bought Instagram for an amazing $1bn earlier this year. At first, it looked like the asset they were buying was the Instagram user base, and the photo sharing utility. But now it is clear that they want to have the right to use the images, and the associated metadata how they see fit. Would we use Office if Microsoft could use any document created on it – letters, manuscripts, legal documents, novels? Would the aircraft and car manufacturers be happy if their designs could be sold by the people who write their CAD software? Most of the images on Instagram will be personal pictures; people sharing photos of their life with friends and families. For some others the pictures will be more considered pictures with a potential commercial value for the author. Is it fair for Instagram to exploit their users’ pictures for their profit? I can’t imagine who would find that acceptable.

Almost as worrying is their claim to the metadata. Most smartphones will tag photos with GPS data and face recognition. Even if you don’t want your photographs on Instagram, it is quite likely that images of you and your family could be posted by others and thus sold on to third parties. Your locations, friendships and behaviours will be up for grabs. If they are happy to use you photos, what guarantees do we have over their use of metadata?

I feel very uncomfortable about social media websites. Although I have a Facebook page and a LinkedIn account I don’t use them. I opened both at the behest of others, and I don’t like what I see. I don’t like the way you can be stalked. I don’t like the whole liking and recommending thing. None of it feels very social to me. As I am one of the few people left without a smartphone, I don’t have Instagram. Judging by the outcry in the media, many people will be leaving Instagram. No doubt Facebook and Instagram will retrench and try to reassure their users, but the cat is out the bag, as they say. 

You get what you pay for. Caveat Emptor.