Some documentaries move and inspire us with stories of courage in distant lands (Call Me Kuchu, Pray the Devil Back to Hell); others hit closer to home when they tackle subjects like climate change (An Inconvenient Truth) or gun control (Bowling for Columbine). In the latter category, and one of the top highlights of the Aruba International Film Festival, is the documentary Terms and Conditions May Apply, which Variance Films opens in New York on July 12 and takes to 12 to
15 more cities one week later. Cullen Hoback's feature is one of the most important and eye-opening films of the year, a brisk compendium of the ways the websites and web businesses we all use exploit our personal data and, even more disturbing, are making it increasingly accessible to government agencies whose definition of "suspicious activity" can sometimes be chillingly wide-ranging and inexact. (The film has just added an end-title card referencing Edward Snowden and his revelations about the National Security Agency's encroachments on our privacy.)
Terms and Conditions outlines how web giants like Google and Facebook have incrementally stripped away our presumed privacy protections in the post-9/11 climate. Those voluminous user agreements we all blithely click our assent to would seem to be intentionally daunting to discourage us from analyzing what rights we're giving away; Hoback argues that if these providers really wanted not to "be evil" (as the Google slogan goes), they'd provide clear, user-friendly bullet points for us to navigate. These sites may be "free," but as it turns out, our private information is very, very valuable, as evidenced by the billions of dollars they've amassed in the past decade.
Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer's September 2001 admonition to the public to "watch what they say" is truer than ever in 2013. Hoback demonstrates that with several examples of private postings and tweets that got people in big trouble when Big Brother intercepted them—most shockingly, the case of a young boy who was visited by the feds when he worried online that President Obama might be targeted by suicide bombers after the U.S. killed Osama bin Laden.
The most frequent argument in favor of monitoring citizens' private activity for the sake of protecting the country is that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about. But, really, don't we all have embarrassing pecadillos we never want the world to know about, and haven't we all made private comments that can be completely misconstrued? As one of Hoback's interviewees observes, "You have nothing to hide—until you do."
Hoback tried with no luck to get representatives from Google and Facebook and other Internet giants to give their side of the story for his film. In frustration, he Googled the home address of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and ambushed him with his cameras outside his house. When Zuckerberg asked him to turn off his cameras (urging "Can you please not?"), he complied—but kept his glasses-cam rolling. Hoback ends his film by arguing that the public should have its own equivalent of "Can you please not?"—a clear and simple way to opt out of these unwanted incursions on our privacy.
In a post-film Q&A last night, Hoback said he believes these Internet systems can be re-thought and redesigned, though that would "go against the business models of some very powerful players." He noted that "a lot of people on Capitol Hill believe people don't care about this stuff" and urged concerned citizens to visit the pending website trackoff.us to learn how to fight back.
Terms and Conditions claims that poring through all that tedious user boilerplate on leading websites can take as much as 180 hours out of your year. But after seeing Cullen Hoback's film, you may want to sacrifice a few hours before hitting "Agree."