Opinion

John C. Abell

Instagram unleashes a thousand words

Dec 19, 2012 21:46 UTC

Instagram surely didn’t expect to stir up a hornet’s nest with changes to its terms of service announced two days ago. But it was met with an Internet flash mob: high-profile tech writers who had adored the service abandoning it and thousands of angry words from the rest of us about what Instagram’s pictures are really worth.

The issue was joined with these 115 words:

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. If you are under the age of eighteen (18), or under any other applicable age of majority, you represent that at least one of your parents or legal guardians has also agreed to this provision (and the use of your name, likeness, username, and/or photos (along with any associated metadata)) on your behalf.

The next day, Instagram had a bit more to say:

Our intention in updating the terms was to communicate that we’d like to experiment with innovative advertising that feels appropriate on Instagram. Instead it was interpreted by many that we were going to sell your photos to others without any compensation. This is not true and it is our mistake that this language is confusing. To be clear: it is not our intention to sell your photos. We are working on updated language in the terms to make sure this is clear.

It’s a fast-moving story — something may have already changed by the time you read this. The changes don’t take effect until Jan. 16, and they are not retroactive: Everything you share on Instagram until that date is exempt from the new policy. But the terms as originally described — and not yet retracted — were pretty expansive. They spoke of revenue and ads that may not look like ads. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see what that might allow the company to do. Saying you don’t “intend” to do anything means nothing. It is what politicians say when they intend to do the opposite but can’t yet go public.

Instagram deserves to make money. It should be lauded for thinking outside the box. And nobody has figured out the perfect way to subsidize mobile sharing services. But like Netflix did with its disastrous Qwikster idea, Instagram needs to reverse course quickly and think about what it has done.

Facebook may yet learn that power does not ensure immortality

Dec 13, 2012 22:29 UTC

Facebook wasted no time acting with impunity by (once again) diluting member privacy protections this week. But it needn’t have hurried. Any semblance of democracy was washed away at noon Pacific Time Tuesday, when a vote to have votes on policy changes went down in flames. It solidified the world’s largest social network’s rule by fiat. This may be good for business now, but in the long-run it could backfire.

On Tuesday not enough Facebook members weighed in on whether they should keep their right to vote down policy changes. The vote didn’t count unless 30 percent of the service’s 1 billion members bothered to vote.

The vote to keep the vote failed to meet the arbitrary threshold — by 299 million votes.

How the United Nations could ruin the Internet

Dec 6, 2012 20:23 UTC

The Internet has sustained some pretty intense assaults in the past couple of years. There was the heavy-handed attempt to stamp out content piracy with SOPA/PIPA, the Federal Communications Commission’s Net neutrality ruling, which many saw as splitting the baby, and that whack job who claimed to own a patent on the World Wide Web.

It is again open season on the Internet in Dubai, where the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency ‑ whose mandate includes global communications ‑ is weighing proposals from many of its 193 member nations. Some of these proposals ‑ such as decentralizing the assignment of website names and eliminating Internet anonymity ‑ would make enormous changes to the organization and management of the Internet.

The ITU meeting, which began on Monday, runs through Dec. 14. Its agenda, and even the fact the proceedings are taking place at all, set off alarms among the Internet’s guardian angels.

With Maps, Apple’s lost

Nov 29, 2012 23:20 UTC

The Apple Maps fiasco has become terribly overblown, if not hysterical.

It started with the fanfare release of the iPhone 5 and its software upgrade in September, which included a big switch from Google Maps to a homegrown alternative from Apple. The upgrade did not go well. Almost immediately, users began noticing that the maps were … unreliable. Not bad enough to slow iPhones sales but bad enough to dominate the news cycle for days.

But the damage was already done. Everyone seemed to be having a field day with Apple’s self-inflicted wound. More than two months later, the drama continues.

This week, Apple fired a senior executive, Map Division head Richard Williamson. Previously, Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook showed Scott Forstall, senior vice president of iOS Software, the door when he wouldn’t go on his own. Cook himself wrote a quick and sincere apology, which seemed to quiet the clamor.

The Facebook Doctrine

Nov 23, 2012 19:41 UTC

Instagram, the mobile photo sharing app that Facebook bought for about $700 million, has been doing something new over the past few weeks. Up until now, one couldn’t see all of a user’s Instagrams online, the way you could, say, see all of a Twitter users’ tweets. But in recent weeks, users’ collections have been uploaded to the Internet automatically (see my profile page as an example). Instagram never bothered to ask for permission. Don’t want people to be able to easily access all your pictures from your Web browser? Too bad.

Between the Instagram change and other more substantive and complex alterations to Facebook’s user-feedback policy this week, the world’s largest social network has a clear modus operandi: What’s good for Facebook is good for you. This is the Facebook Doctrine.

Along with relatively innocuous Instagram changes came word that Facebook intends to eliminate its very modest experiment with democracy. It was a scheme by which members could undo changes (but still not stop them from happening before they took place). The rules Facebook put in place established a transparent process: A policy could be reversed if it received more than 7,000 comments, more than 30 percent of people on Facebook participated in a vote, and if that plurality voted against it.

Have AOL and Yahoo picked up the pieces?

Nov 14, 2012 14:14 UTC

“There are no second acts in American lives.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

Good thing Fitzgerald didn’t live long enough to tell that to AOL and Yahoo, which are confounding wet blankets with sparks of renewed life and relevance. The bit of renaissance for these Internet pioneers comes when Google and Apple are in a bit of a rut and Facebook seems to have found its bottom. (The one constant: Groupon and Zynga are still floundering.)

None of these things are related, of course. There is no astrology of technology, aligning the stars in such a way as to favor some and deny others. Tech success isn’t a zero-sum game, especially when valuations aren’t everything. Just look at Apple’s rise and fall and rebirth.

Apple in miniature

Oct 24, 2012 20:00 UTC

This week Apple faces two significant tablet challengers. The first is Microsoft, which is releasing its long-awaited Surface tablet on Friday. The second is… itself.

Yesterday, amidst the anticipation for the Surface and strong sales for the Kindle Fire, Apple announced a slew of new devices, the $329 iPad Mini the most intriguing among them.

The mobile era has been defined by Apple: iPod, iPhone, iPad, you know the drill. Apple ascended largely unchallenged, facing only a few stunned and weak rivals. By the time it got to tablets in 2010, Apple benefited from an unspeakably large pent-up demand for a device nobody had been clamoring for. Since then it’s sold more than 100 million iPads.

The tracks of my fears

Oct 19, 2012 15:56 UTC

Advertisers say that if they can’t track you online, your favorite websites will die. They’re wrong.

There is lots of bad TV, and lots of bad Internet. Reducing either would be a public service of incalculable proportions. But just as some broadcasters raise the possibility of Armageddon if ad-avoiding tech like TiVo proliferates, online marketers are now making the same empty threats about the Internet. They say that rich Internet “content” would disappear if something called Do Not Track became the standard.

Do Not Track isn’t the default setting of any major Web browser, even though all offer the option to “opt-in” to a private life — to send a signal to advertisers that, on this occasion, in this window, at this time I don’t want you to make use of my surfing behavior to profile me for the sole purpose of creating ads that marketers think have greater personal appeal and are more valuable.

EBay’s buyer’s remorse

Oct 12, 2012 22:02 UTC

How do you know if you’re in a buyer’s market, or a seller’s?

Offline it’s pretty easy to know. There’s price pressure, abundance and not too many people vying for the same house, commodity or mint condition Pee-Wee Herman doll at the yard sale. In the land of the real, markets aren’t terribly efficient. Before the Internet changed everything, retailers were bound by geography and the ability (and willingness) of people to range. That’s why gas costs a lot more right off the highway exit than it does less than a mile down, where strangers would rather not venture. (Now, of course, there’s an app for that.)

Online, it’s easier to know where the consumer stands. In fact, online, it’s always a buyer’s market. There are, of course, always fixed costs that help determine an item’s price – a book publisher’s monopoly or the cost of jet fuel, say. But a buyer’s power to compare prices from a comfy chair has made it difficult for online sellers to gouge – to insist on a higher price than the market bears – because the market is transparent, fluid and infinite in all directions. Services like Kayak create an almost perfect buyer’s market for air travel, which was already one of the world’s most competitive businesses. Amazon’s ability to offer nearly everything at buyer’s market prices has created a retailing behemoth that doesn’t even need an Apple-like seller’s market to thrive.

And then there’s eBay, an Amazon contemporary with an identity that’s been in crisis for years.

Facebook’s billion: Are you being served?

Oct 4, 2012 22:00 UTC

Facebook has reached an almost unimaginable milestone: 1 billion people are active users. It is hard to get your head around that number, which represents one-seventh of the world’s population (and not every one of us even has Internet access). It’s almost half the total number of people estimated to be on the Web at the beginning of this year.

Even CEO Mark Zuckerberg can’t quite seem to comprehend it: “It’s really humbling to get a billion people to do anything.”

But despite gangbuster growth, Facebook is based on a tricky business model: The more they use members’ shared information to target them for advertisers and marketers, the less members are likely to go along, and the more they’ll realize the bargain they’ve struck. Just as Facebook effectively redefined “Friend,” it is pushing the boundaries of the public-private divide.

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