Terms and Conditions May Apply, Reviewed
“Dumb fucks.” That’s what Mark Zuckerberg wrote in an IM chat with a friend shortly after launching Facebook, offering his redacted pal all manner of data on the social networking site’s then-4,000 users.
At least that’s what director Cullen Hoback claims in Terms and Conditions May Apply, a documentary on what its title spells out—the legalities that all of us scroll through and agree to in order to access websites and services—before expanding into a look at individual privacy in general. Zuckerberg’s chat is shown onscreen, and his comment has been well-publicized. But for viewers for whom this detail is new, the director's apparent re-creation isn't clear or supported, making it seem like an example of truthiness rather than truth, perhaps shaped to better demonize the Facebook overlord. There’s another poorly attributed piece of information put forth as fact in the film: that it would take users 180 hours a year if they read all the terms they readily agree to. An interesting stat, but viewers aren’t told its source. (Perhaps it’s in the fine print of the credits?)
These two eyebrow-raisers may make you regard the 79-minute doc with a bit of suspicion, but overall much of it is not only easy to believe (particularly if you’ve followed the case of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden) but will perhaps sway you to change your online habits. Seemingly all of the big Internet guns are thrown under the bus here, from Google—again and again and again—to Facebook (ditto), Instagram, Amazon, and Apple. At a hearing on mobile privacy, an Apple representative is asked whether the company can know how many users read its rules. The rep says no, but adds: “We try to make [them] in plain English and very short.” Um, has this woman ever downloaded her company’s iTunes and glimpsed the book that precedes one’s ability to play music?
Hoback combs through the intricacies of popular T&C agreements to highlight that nearly everyone who spends time online—or uses a cellphone—is surrendering his or her privacy rights to an alarming degree. Plenty of “interception equipment,” including an ubiquitous software called Carrier IQ that’s surreptitiously installed on the devices of several mobile carriers, are available to anyone with enough money to buy them. That certainly includes the government, which, according to the film’s commentators, regularly goes to Google and Facebook insiders to dig through people’s comments and online activities. Hoback includes cases of innocent individuals—including a 7-year-old boy—who were questioned or even detained because of something they said, often in jest, on the Web.
To further demonstrate how misguiding such information can be, Hoback talks to a man who readily admits that his Google searches have included keywords such as decapitation, how to murder cheating wife, car crashes, and other gruesome topics. Psychopath? Nope, the guy is a writer for Cold Case and is just doing his research. Oops.
Terms and Conditions naturally approaches its subject politically, discussing the Patriot Act and, likely surprisingly for liberals who don’t closely follow the matter, how the Obama administration has charged whistleblowers with felonies. Most viewers, however, will be most interested in the revelations about Google and Facebook, such as how the latter never deletes any of your information even if you’ve asked it to. An MIT professor then offers some common-sense advice for the site’s filterless updaters in an analogy. “[In] most relationships in your life, it’s very good if the other person doesn’t know everything ever said, or scribbled, or thought.” Or, more succinctly: STFU.