Is Instagram using API access to defend its turf?

Tiiny, a new photo sharing app launched by Digg founder Kevin Rose, has seen part of its access to Instagram's API cut off.

A tweet posted to Tiiny's Twitter account last week indicated that Instagram authentication was pulled from the company's app at the request of Instagram. According to TechCruch's Josh Constine, Instagram refused to comment about the matter, and Tiiny wasn't willing to provide additional information either.

Lack of access to Instagram authentication could prove to be a blow to Tiiny, which is trying to gain traction in the highly-competitive photo and video sharing space. An ideal way to do that is to tap into popular existing services like Instagram. Not only can this reduce registration friction, it gives upstarts the ability to tap into large social graphs for distribution, which is of course one of the most challenging aspects of building a viable service.

Platform politics

While Tiiny's ability to authenticate users through Facebook is still in place, Constine notes that the world's largest social network, which owns Instagram, has cut off social graph access to other apps in the past.

"This is how social graph politics works," Constine suggested. "If a big dog thinks an upstart is a potential competitor or bad actor, they don’t always want to offer their social graphs to be used against them. So sometimes they cut off their 'find friends' API access."

In the case of Tiiny, the politics are hard to ignore. Tiiny's Rose is well-known in Silicon Valley, where he was previously a general partner at Google's venture arm, Google Ventures. His departure from Google Ventures to resume his career as an entrepreneur was widely reported, as was the launch of Tiiny, the first app created by his new company, North. So it isn't surprising that Tiiny appeared on Instagram's radar so early.

Is it really an open platform?

While we may never know the exact reasons Instagram shuttered Tiiny's access, Instagram's apparent move to thwart an upstart and potential future competitor raises an interesting question: is an "open platform" really an "open platform" if its owner arbitrarily chooses who it's open to?

In theory, many companies on the consumer internet have good reason to want to become the foundations on which other popular services are built. But in practice, it's more complicated than that. From ESPN shutting down its public API to Twitter using API access as a weapon in a trademark spat, it's clear that public APIs and platforms can be fraught with challenges and conflicts. When faced with these challenges and conflicts, and the possibility that their own platforms could be used to dethrone them, it's clear that many companies will choose to protect their positions even if it means sacrificing their principles.

Patricio Robles Follow me on Google+