The new millennium has seen a rapid growth in the number of conscientious big-topic documentaries. There have been multiple entries on such inescapable issues as the environment (An Inconvenient Truth, The 11th Hour, Gasland), industrialised agriculture (The Future of Food, King Corn, Food Inc.) and widespread financial chicanery (The Corporation, Inside Job). Now it’s the Internet’s turn. In Terms and Conditions May Apply, director/writer Cullen Hoback asserts that the widespread decline in personal privacy in the digital age is a problem much more pervasive and dangerous than we know or are willing to admit, and that the major potential pitfalls of this problem may only become evident after it’s too late to turn back.
As the title suggests, the jumping-off point here are those seemingly innocuous (if wordy) disclaimers that we are compelled to click through (usually without reading) in so many Internet situations. Hoback claims that it would take a typical person 180 hours a year to read all the user agreements that we agree to in the same 12-month period, and that it has cost consumers who violate those terms $250 billion. As the ominous, faux-Philip Glass piano triplets replicate on the soundtrack, the back-story kicks in. At the turn of the century, Internet privacy laws were proposed in the U.S. to allay a wary citizenry as more and more of our daily lives were caught up in the worldwide web. They were quickly cast aside in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Hoback goes on from there to make a credible case that since that time a combination of presumptive governmental overreach (often with coerced or cooperative tech overlords like Google and Facebook), and a complicit citizenry bamboozled with ever more sophisticated gadgetry have shredded almost all traditional notions of personally secure information.
Like many of the bitter-medicine docs listed above, Terms and Conditions is an alarming but necessary film leavened only by the attractive production values that have become de rigueur in current non-fiction camera. It begins with a would-be amusing cartoon that compares what a typical doctor’s visit entails (in gathered information) in the pre and post-digital eras. It makes you feel that you are down to your skivvies in front of the whole world. Hoback offers up the expected telling examples (the redacted Facebook posts trashing one’s boss, the college applicant’s trail of inappropriate uploaded photos) He also explores the growing surveillance industry, the omnipresent personal-device arms race and the relentless pull of social media that should be worrisome even to sensible people who use the web for its many benefits and leave the nonsense alone. The recent revelations of spying and all-encompassing data gathering by the U.S. National Security Administration may have started the process of raising hackles in the body politic, but in Terms and Conditions the underlying sense is that the horse is a little too far out of the gate by now. In one notable interview snippet, MIT professor Sherry Turkle notes that we’ve allowed ourselves to become so smitten with technology that “we don’t want anything to rain on our parade” at this point and it’s at least four years too late for any privacy concerns.
This all may sound a bit like Chicken Little, but the dwindling reserves of healthy skepticism in an age when so many thing put online are instantly accessible everywhere is dispiriting. Consider the pre-teen boy visited by the US Secret Service because of a misconstrued chat room comment about his concern for President Obama’s safety (“he better be careful”), the urban hipster’s bad joke on Facebook that earned him a surprise courtesy call from the New York City SWAT team, or the fifty people arrested in England for thinking about protesting the recent royal wedding—or, more precisely, mulling it over online. Heaven help us if the relatively “benign” Western governments of today get replaced with anything worse.
While contrarians everywhere nod their heads, the film contends there is something categorically wrong with a multi-zillion dollar company like Facebook having no real capital other than the personal info and preferences of the 900 million or so people who signed up for their “free” service. Has Mark Zuckerberg’s attitude changed much since his Harvard days when he called the first 4000 college kids who did the same thing “dumb fucks”? A couple of years later, the world was handed over to him and others of his ilk based solely on heuristic genius, people often of little empathy or life experience who openly scoff at the idea of personal confidentiality.
In the sway of this perceived relentless cyber invasion, Hoback’s final scene, a good old-fashioned physical stalking of Zuckerberg by a documentary camera as the t-shirted mogul walks down a street in his tony neighbourhood, is perversely gratifying. Visibly nervous and unwilling to answer an on-the-spot question until he is assured (falsely) that the camera is switched off; Hoback has us look closely at the psychological relief (as seen in the facial expression) of a man who realises he is soon to be left in peace. With the credits rolling, the rest of us are left only with the hope that Hoback’s vision is not as spot-on as it often appears to be.
About the Author
Rick Ouellette is the author of “Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film.” On his blog, Reel and Rock, it’s Beatles doc month in the run up to the 50th anniversary of their first U.S. visit and the birth of the modern rock epoch.
Find out more: http://rickouellettereelandrock.wordpress.com/