It's simple: You own your content on online services


The Instagram terms of service controversy just before the holiday break brought the concept of content ownership on online services to the forefront--and reemphasized the notion that content always belongs to the individual and not the service where he or she happens to store it.

In case for some reason you missed it (or simply forgot about it in the holiday fog), Instagram caused a firestorm of controversy when it released new terms of service suggesting that the company could do anything it wanted with your pictures, including using them in ads.

Quite understandably, social networks blew up with criticism. People hold their content, especially photos, dearly and others including Instagram owner Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) have tried to claim ownership of their user's content, only to be slapped down hard by angry users. I wrote a piece after hearing about the new ToS stating that the first rule of any social network was "your content belongs to you" and that what Instagram was doing amounted to social media suicide. I predicted they would back down by the end of the week.

As it turned out, they backed down by the end of the day, posting a statement on their blog stating in no uncertain terms that the content you post on Instagram belongs to you. That notion should never have been in question, but it brought up a compelling debate about content ownership on the Internet.

One Twitter friend was baffled by the controversy because he assumed that anything he published on the Internet was fair game. I found this a bit odd. It's one thing to assume everything is public, but another entirely to give up your rights to the content just because it's on the Internet.

The Instagram controversy really came down to the idea that you decide how much you want to share your content. If you make it public, so be it, anyone can see it, but if you only want your family to see your new baby pictures, that's your right too, at least to the extent the service can can honor your wishes. But just because you make your content public, that doesn't mean you're giving permission to the service to publish it anywhere without your explicit permission--and this is even more so when you want to limit your content's exposure. 

In fact, if you want to let anyone use your photos, you could display it under the Creative Commons license and let anyone share it with or without attribution depending on how you choose to define the terms. You can also put stricter copyrights on the material if that's what you want. And Creative Commons lets you restrict commercial use, so you can widely share your content, while restricting it from being used for commercial purposes like ads.

It may happen that people use that content outside the realm of those defined parameters, which happens all the time, but it should never be the service where you happen to be storing that content making that decision. That's why people got so upset with Instagram. They want to be in control.

Now, my Twitter friend is right that you should never assume privacy on the Internet, as Randi Zuckerberg found out recently when a family photo she had posted on Facebook, and believed was restricted, was published on Twitter. In spite of such transgressions, it doesn't mean that you should never assume ownership of your own content, only that you should never assume privacy, especially when you are the sibling of a very public figure. 

I'm a big believer in sharing and I'm a strong critic of big media for going way overboard in the name of content ownership, but ownership on social services doesn't have to be that complicated. The service, no matter how it chooses to make money, does not have an automatic right to the content you share there. It was a lesson Instagram learned swiftly last month and one I'm sure other services will need to learn again in the future. - Ron

It's worth noting that data ownership is an entirely separate matter, and that's a subject I'll tackle in next week's Editor's Corner.