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SIFF 2013 – ‘Terms and Conditions May Apply’ Movie Review

by Warren Cantrell on May 29, 2013

in Print Reviews,Reviews

There’s a very interesting scene in Terms and Conditions May Apply that shows Google’s privacy policy from December 2000, which stated that information was indeed being gathered to track the data of users, but that it was being done in an entirely anonymous fashion.  Just one year later, following 9/11 and the passage of the Patriot Act, Google had updated its policy to state that they were now “storing user preferences in cookies” and would only turn them over if compelled to do so by law.

It didn’t take long, for as the documentary states, “anonymity isn’t profitable.”  This is at the heart of Cullen Hoback’s new documentary, Terms and Conditions May Apply, for it holds that the proliferation of information via the Internet is being used to bilk people and, worse, rob them of their freedoms.  Yet the picture is flawed, not necessarily because of a weakness in Hoback’s arguments, but in the hollow manner in which they are formed.  While very good points are made by several well-informed talking heads that include Sherry Turkle, Rainey Reitman, Sen. Ellen Corbett, Margaret Atwood, and John Palfrey, they all inform a position forcefully advanced, yet rarely challenged.

To the film’s credit, it does a wonderful job painting a fairly bleak picture of the future of privacy as it pertains to Internet data storage and processing, and tracks the evolution of this mini-industry’s history splendidly.  The discussion on the “3rd Party Doctrine” as it pertains to the 4th Amendment, and the role this has played in the Bush and Obama administrations’ surveillance programs is fascinating, and ties into Hoback’s overall thesis nicely.

Cullen Hoback wrote, directed, and edited Terms and Conditions May Apply, and this total-control approach comes through in the film’s tone and bearing.  As mentioned in this author’s review of The Punk Singer, another documentary showing at the Seattle International Film Festival this year, it isn’t enough for a doc to just have one good point, and plenty of people handy to agree with it.  If one of these movies is made well enough, with slick animation graphics, good pacing, and compelling, relatable information (as is the case with Terms and Conditions May Apply): it can hook pretty much anybody.

Yet if it is a one-sided debate with nothing but straw-man arguments in opposition, then it ceases to be a documentary and moves into the realm of propaganda.  It’s an ugly word, that: propaganda.  It implies misdirection and coercion via dishonest means, and while that isn’t exactly what a person has on their hands with Terms and Conditions May Apply, it’s not that far off, either.  Hoback never really gives a counterpoint to the doomsday tirade he’s on, and it’s a shortcoming that weakens the argument the film attempts to bear out.


As the sole creative force behind this picture, one gets the sense that Hoback locked himself into a sort of tunnel vision that isolated his documentary’s argument from anything that might have challenged its narrative.  Indeed, a compelling case is made about the growth of information sharing between governments, media outlets, and public corporations like Google and Facebook, yet what’s the point?  What’s the message?  Seemingly content to run into a theater and yell “fire,” Hoback doesn’t offer up any solutions or ideas to the audience: just stern warnings about government intrusions and sideways lauding of cyber activists like Julian Assange and the Anonymous Hacktivist Collective.

No time is given over to a discussion about Assange’s politics and megalomania, nor towards the fact that the complete cessation of all information tracking and legal surveillance could have serious political, financial, and public safety consequences for millions, if not billions, around the world.  It might seem like a stretch, and indeed it could be, yet since Terms and Conditions May Apply doesn’t provide much in the way of counterpoints, it almost forces a person to go searching for their own.

And as for this slippery slope counter-argument, it’s one that Hoback and his documentary can’t help but to bolster, for in making such a good case about the total merging of internet usage and privacy loss in the public and private sectors, it forces one to take pause at the thought of what might happen if this massive machine suddenly stopped running.  As Terms and Conditions May Apply convincingly demonstrates, institutions like Google and Facebook have become such an important part of modern marketing and commerce that the removal of their primary means of information gathering might just give the economy a startle.

Further, as the C.I.A., F.B.I., and N.S.A. have openly (and somewhat blissfully) admitted, social networking is the best thing to happen to domestic espionage since…well, ever!  What would happen to the security apparatus of this country and others if all access to the established networks of information gathering were suddenly removed?  People that Hoback brings in to address this don’t have any answers, for folks like Barrett Brown, the self-proclaimed “Unofficial Head of Hacktivist Group Anonymous” seem to know everything about what’s wrong, and nothing about how to help fix it.  Brown appeared in another film from SIFF last year called We Are Legion, and it fell into many of the same traps that Terms and Conditions May Apply does.

Although Hoback’s film makes a great case for the promotion of legislation to guard the privacy of Internet and cell phone users, by failing to offer any kind of a counter-argument, the documentary leaves one suspicious of this movie’s overall message and agenda.  Had the writer/editor/director taken the time to more responsibly weigh out the pros and cons of his argument, and given some form of the opposition more time to offer up a different point of view, the lesson Terms and Conditions May Apply shoves down the throat of its viewers may very well have gone down voluntarily.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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