Instagram, Governments and Cypherpunks

Tuesday 18 December 2012

The whole internet collectively fell over Instagram earlier this week when they released their new Terms of Service.

Some or all of the Service may be supported by advertising revenue. To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.

Today Instagram officially responded to all the screaming and shouting, trying to control the damage.

From the start, Instagram was created to become a business.

Well, that was unexpected. It's the same with Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Hotmail, etc. All these services are here for you to use for free - awesome!

But nobody ever got rich from giving stuff away for free, and these are businesses we're talking about.

Let's see how this works over at Facebook.

Exhibit A: Facebook

Facebook is a good example of how you are the product being sold. We all know Facebook tries to show you ads that you are likely interested in. Based on what you put in your profile advertisers can target specific audiences.

That might sound all well and good to you, but did you also know that your friends might see a sponsored post in their newsfeed? And that that sponsored post appears as if it's one posted by you?

Facebook sponsored post

Here you see a post by a friend of mine who apparently likes some mobile company's ad. They didn't like this add. I asked them.

So basically Facebook and an advertiser are using you, your name and your profile picture to promote an advertisement to one of your friends.

Exhibit B: Google

Another example, more in line with Facebook, is Google. All those free tools: Search, Gmail, Google+, Analytics, Web Master Tools, maps. They are all geared towards either exposing ads to you, or gathering data on you to expose more focussed ads.

The plus side here, I would say, is that Google actually delivers usable services, like search, mail, calendars and such. But still, look at the boatloads of money Google is making selling ads based on your private details and online behaviour.

Exhibit C: Twitter

Twitter is a company that has struggled for a long time to find a way to monetize itself. Hopes were high that they would find a new an innovative way, but they have not.

It remains to be seen what's going to happen exactly with twitter, but we can all assume that our tweets are being analyzed and that Twitter will do anything to sell you to their advertisers.

Exhibit D: Instagram

To come back to Instagram, they're in the same boat as Twitter and Facebook.

They have been growing their user base for quite some time now and now comes the time to move in and cash on all those users.

The new terms of service should not come as a surprise.

Instagram wants to use your data to match you up with advertisers and it even wants to show ads endorsed by you, just like Facebook already does.

So what's happening out there?

Social Media are nice, they connect people and can start revolutions. But that is not why those media exist. They are marketing and data mining platforms on a massive scale.

Have you ever wondered why social media companies get multi million dollar investments? Because with a huge, world-wide user base, there is a huge advertising potential.

If you are not buying a product or service, but are receiving one for free, then you are the product or service begin sold.

I think that companies like Facebook and Instagram are wading in a gray area of privacy. Their practices may be perfectly legal, but they are ethically questionable.

On government spying and eavesdropping

You might sometimes worry about governments eavesdropping and keeping tabs on innocent citizens – and you should.

If you look at the sheer amount of data social media gather on you, imagine what kind of data a government agency with the proper tools and hardware can do.

But the issue is not really that companies and governments are gathering data - you are feeding it to them with every status update and photo you upload to the internet. With every email you sent.

So, what's to be done?

Cypherpunks to the rescue?

Now, I won't claim to know a whole lot about cypherpunks and the crypto wars, but these people have fought (and still are) fighting for our digital rights and freedom.

We are collectively giving away our personal data to companies and governments and most of the time we don't even know it. But then some image sharing company changes its terms that will allow them to display adds alongside your name and we freak out.

Here's quite from the Cypherpunks manifesto:

Privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age. ... We cannot expect governments, corporations, or other large, faceless organizations to grant us privacy ... We must defend our own privacy if we expect to have any. ... Cypherpunks write code. We know that someone has to write software to defend privacy, and ... we're going to write it.

To be clear, I'm not a cypherpunk by any means. Here's a snippet from Wired magazine, 1993:

The people in this room [cypherpunks] hope for a world where an individual's informational footprints -- everything from an opinion on abortion to the medical record of an actual abortion -- can be traced only if the individual involved chooses to reveal them;

And this is where the problem lies. Yesterday Will Wheaton, of Star Trek fame, wrote about this as well.

Will has a great point that we've come to a point where it's okay that somebody else shares your personal details with a third party on the internet – without your knowledge, without your consent. And there is nothing you can do about it.

I'm not sure about you, but this sure frightens me.

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