What can one little movie do to stop the erosion of privacy that many of us sign off on, willingly if unwittingly, every time we click one of those little “accept” boxes that pop up at the end of the legalese we’re asked to read (but never do) when signing up for some new app, Internet service or high-tech communication gizmo?
Not much, I’m afraid.
That isn’t just my assessment. There’s a palpable tone of hopelessness — or at best impotent outrage — to “Terms and Conditions May Apply,” a documentary about the abuse of digital privacy that meets the world’s collective shrug about the rights we daily sign away with a sense that the horse may already be well out of that barn.
Filmmaker Cullen Hoback certainly isn’t happy about it. Nor are the many digerati, academics and activists whose talking heads parade through his film. Many of them seem less upset with services such as Facebook, which has been criticized for its seemingly cavalier treatment of user privacy, than with the seemingly cavalier attitude of its users. After all, it’s the users who periodically rise up in anger at every new tweak to the site’s privacy settings and information-sharing policies, but never long enough to disrupt their postings about what they had for dinner last night.
In other words, Facebook really isn’t the problem (nor are Google, Verizon, Instagram, Amazon or any other of many services that collect our data in order to monetize it, or, as we have learned through recent news stories, to hand it over to the government). Rather it’s our own apathy about the fact that they’re doing it.
As Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sherry Turkle puts it, in a bid for greater regulation, “I’m okay with Facebook behaving like a company. But I think we need to treat it like a company, and not treat it like some benign public utility.”
Good luck with that.
As even Mark Zuckerberg once opined, in an old online chat that Hoback somehow unearths, the first users of Facebook’s early college-only site were “dumb” for blindly handing over their personal information to him.
Occasionally, user outcry has an impact, as when Instagram backpedaled last year on its decision to make available user photographs in advertisements without compensation. In response to their anger, the service quickly acted to change the wording of its terms of service contract. Other examples of affronts to privacy cited by the film are more shocking. They include police detention and questioning in response to innocuous tweets and postings that were subject to misinterpretation.
If you’re not paying attention, the degree to which our privacy has already been compromised — at least as outlined in “Terms and Conditions” — may surprise you. To anyone else who has been following the revelations about NSA surveillance programs and the mining of cellphone records, its revelations are not exactly news. And barring going cold turkey on every social-media site, e-mail service and online shopping hub that you use, the film is short on specifics about what can be done to fix the problem. In any case, deleting your accounts doesn’t actually delete anything, as the film notes. It just hides your data from yourself.
One thing the film does do, if only inadvertently, is offer insight as to how we have gotten to this state of affairs.
Toward the end of the film, Hoback attempts to conduct a hidden-camera interview with Zuckerberg, whom he ambushes outside his home, after proving unable to get an interview with the Facebook founder through more formal channels. When Zuckerberg asks if the interview is being recorded, and then requests that the camera be turned off, Hoback only pretends to comply, justifying his deception as a fair response to Facebook’s lack of respect for our privacy.
Maybe the filmmaker is justified in this tit-for-tat. But his action betrays a common arrogance that underlies the reason some companies and governments feel entitled to other people’s personal information: Everyone thinks that they’re the good guys and that the fight against evil — or simply the pursuit of old-fashioned American capitalism — entitles them to bad behavior.
For this reason, as much as any, “Terms and Conditions” is a depressing reflection of a pervasive and thoroughly modern malaise.
Unrated. At West End Cinema. Contains brief obscenity and sexual content. 79 minutes.
There will be a Q&A with Hoback after the 7 p.m. showings on Friday and Saturday.