Hot Docs 2013: Terms and Conditions May Apply


There are generally two types of documentaries: “story” documentaries and “message” documentaries. Story documentaries generally tell just that – a story or a slice of life tale (see: The Impostor, Searching for Sugar Man). Message documentaries, on the other hand, exist to promote awareness about an issue (i.e. A Place at the Table, and this film, Terms and Conditions May Apply). The problem with a message documentary is that its greatness exists solely by how well it convinces and persuades the audience. If the message falls flat, there’s really nothing else to fall back on.

This is a breezy and fun little documentary. Reportedly revealing the sinister machinations behind those pesky online agreements we sign to use Facebook, Twitter, and the like, the film uses clips from popular television shows (South Park, Parks and Recreation), original animation, and sound bites from Mark Zuckerberg, Eric Schmidt (CEO of Google) and a member of the “hacktivist” group Anonymous to tell its tale. It’s quick and watchable, but the underlying message, and the examples used to support it, don’t seem all that terrifying or persuasive.

The message is pretty much this: privacy in the digital age does not exist. The terms and conditions we agree to allow these companies to sell the data to third-parties (advertisers and others) and also act as Orwellian surveillance tools to prevent crime. “Prevention” is the key word for the film – how do you “prevent” a crime before it has even occurred (cue: clip from Minority Report)?

The examples that are used I didn’t find to be terribly persuasive in supporting “opt-out” legislation for T and Cs. One example used is that of a comedian on Facebook, who, after a bad day at the Apple store, quotes a line from the movie Fight Club on his personal page. A line that says he may “snap” and go to the Apple store with a high-powered assault rifle and open fire. A few hours later, the police arrive at his door and search his apartment. An overreaction? Yes. Sinister? Not really. Another example is a guy on Twitter who is going to visit the US and tweets to his friends that he is off to “destroy America.” He gets held up at Customs for six hours because of this. An overreaction? Yep. But also not sinister – these are public tweets that anyone can read. To me, these just seem to be examples of how not to use social media, rather than the nefarious effects of social media.

Additionally, privacy not existing in the digital age cuts both ways. Just look at Wikileaks (featured in the film) where sensitive government information can be received and published effortlessly. There’s also talk about the Petraeus affair and how e-mails and digital documents were used by the FBI to uncover that – despite having no bearing on national security or Petraeu’s effectiveness in his position. If we don’t have privacy on the Internet, the big corporations and the government doesn’t either. It’s a free-for-all.

The film also seems to ignore some pertinent counter-points. In London, thousands of security cameras were installed to capture footage of everyone walking around the streets. The public wasn’t outraged by this. Why? The film doesn’t ask that question (I would argue it has to do with the reasonable expectation of privacy – i.e. Being outside we aren’t as concerned about being “seen” whereas with online documents like e-mails we expect that others cannot access them without permission). As well, there’s no discussion or consideration why these terms and conditions exist. There’s probably several reasons – some of it is so these “free” services can actually make money to run, other terms so the service is compliant with the law. Rather than investigating their purpose, it’s pretty much just presented as a vast conspiracy and left at that.

Terms and Conditions May Apply bombards the audience with facts, interviews, and examples about privacy on the Internet, but fails to provide any counter-arguments to their message. Basically, if you go into the film thinking Google, Facebook, and the government are evil, then you’ll be rewarded with that viewpoint. If not, the film won’t be able to convince you otherwise.

Grade: C+

Sidenote: I think the film raises some interesting concerns (like how warrants should be required for asking for information from third-parties), but doesn’t effectively explore them.


One Response to Hot Docs 2013: Terms and Conditions May Apply

  1. Nostra says:

    A shame it leaves some questions unaswered as this is a very interesting subject.

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