I’m not Anthony Weiner. But I know he’s done it. Not just in his underwear.
I’m not Eliot Spitzer. He’s done it, too.
I’m Elias Savada. And I’ve done it.
If you’re reading this, you’ve done it.
Heck, we’ve all done it.
We’ve clicked. Or, more precisely, agreed to the incomprehensible gobbledy gook that got you on any web browser, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, Apple, Rotten Tomatoes, Film Threat, or hundreds of other websites where you have a web presence, a bank account, or social network.
We’ve signed, too. If you’ve gone to a doctor’s office, all you know about the paper shoved in our face is what the office staff tells you. It’s a privacy statement. Do you ever read it? Doubtful.
Like the 1932 movie “Freaks,” you have been accepted. You are now one of us. And so it goes in Cullen Hoback’s informative, cautionary, briskly-paced documentary “Terms and Conditions May Apply.” After you’ve finished watching it, that fairy tale world we know as the Internet will darken with the sad realization that very little of what we do is private. (Just ask the N.S.A.—or AT&T, whose terms and conditions allow it to use data to investigate, PREVENT, or take action against illegal activities.) Once you’re back on your computer, it’s back to the usual bombardment of customized ads and emails. All because you agreed to it.
A parade of very intelligent talking heads, comedy sketches, news pundits, movie & tv clips, and animations, some overlaid with Hoback’s elucidating conversation (on- and off-screen), drive the point home. So do the myriad of facts Hoback tosses at the viewer. That if you read all these hard to digest agreements in their entirety, you’d be spending 180 hours each year in that endeavor. Of course, if you actually had read these maddeningly frustrating paragraphs, you might not have clicked and later realized how your privacy AND your pocketbook had been pilfered. He quotes from the “Wall Street Journal” the horrifying factoid that consumers lose $250 billion every year “due to what’s hidden in fine print.”
There is a gallows humor aspect to some of this. Gamestation, for a single day, actually put up an online contract for a buyer to click that would grant them “a non-transferable option to claim, now and for ever more, your immortal soul.” Seven thousand people lost their souls that day.
The buyer beware attitude the film espouses is genuine. Your soul may not be in danger, but it’s fair game for most anything else. Most people just don’t make a concerted effort to protect themselves, whether filling in an online questionnaire with lots of personal info to score a free whatchamacallit, or blocking your browser’s cookies from revealing other marketing information to snooping spyware. Facebook takes a big chunk of the blame with its ever-changing privacy settings. There’s also the problem of how innocent comments you tweet or post on Facebook might earn you a visit from the New York City police or a 5-hour Q+A with U.S. customs agents wondering why you are planning to “destroy America.” While disturbing, they’re all rather lighthearted in hindsight (unless you’re part of the story, of course), but these types of situations, of which a strong handful are presented in the movie, will obviously get a lot worse for those who don’t have enough common sense to prevent setting off red flags by those-who-are-watching-you.
“Terms and Conditions May Apply” showcases ample evidence of the losing battle over our private lives and provides enough ammunition for you to hopefully cope in the smoke-and-mirrors battle for your data. It’s pretty scary stuff, the reality of a Bigger Brother watching you. Some of the film’s technical terms—like “third party doctrine” or “massive interception equipment”—can be as baffling as its much larger privacy/profiling tableau. Your brain will be overflowing with information by the end of this short 79-minute exercise. Taxing? Perhaps. Entertaining. Yes.
Hoback previously documented some Northwesterners who gather to play a live-action Dungeons & Dragons style game in the amusing “Monster Camp” (2007), and he made 2006’s “Freedom State,” a study about the normalcy of life. He also ventured, sort of, into a blend of narrative/documentary filmmaking with 2011’s self-referential “Friction,” in which its actors as asked to play themselves.
Privacy is dead. Or so the experts believe. And Hoback, in ambush mode, tries to get Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to say just that. On camera. Not gonna happen. Alas, our demise may be a slow, creeping death. We’ll be smothered by privacy policies, constant surveillance on every corner, and the deluge of corporations and government agencies (not just the U.S., I suspect) abusing our personal data. You might not be afraid right now, but who knows what tomorrow might bring.