“In a world where governments secretly track their citizens’ every move online, one filmmaker is on a mission to expose the sinister world of the Internet… before it’s too late.”
Mark 2013 as the year real life became indistinguishable from a Don LaFontaine movie trailer. Following revelations this past month that the National Security Agency has been monitoring everyone’s digital footprint without permission through its top-secret PRISM program, Cullen Hoback’s new Internet-privacy documentary Terms And Conditions May Apply is now squarely inside that wonderful, elusive sweet spot known as the zeitgeist. But just getting there isn’t good enough—not in this world.
Using as his jumping-off point those overlong end-user service agreements that tech companies love, Hoback (Monster Camp) structures his film according to the sort of contract a user must sign to open an iTunes or Facebook account. He interviews a host of digital-rights advocates to illustrate how our collective right to privacy has disappeared like so many Snapchats, and also talks to Orson Scott Card, Moby, and some regular folk who became victims of law enforcement as the result of some ill-conceived statuses.
Hoback plays what’s essentially a greatest-hits track of privacy concerns over the last decade or so, from the signing of the PATRIOT Act and creation of the creepy Information Awareness Office to the rise of Wikileaks. (The PRISM affair, which leaked after the film’s production had wrapped, gets a brief post-credits mention.) Rather than dig into the backstories of these milestone events, Hoback skims the surface with news clips and freeze-frames of webpages, an animated opening sequence imagining the Internet as a real place (the sequence plays like a decade-old Chappelle’s Show sketch), frequent cutaways to pop-culture clips, and a Michael Moore-like ambush of a certain billionaire Harvard dropout. The film is as breezy as a Huffington Post slideshow, and about as substantial.
When Hoback tries to go deep, he often missteps. He makes some spurious logical leaps to link the appalling News Of The World phone-hacking scandal to the shady practices of tech giants. For all the bad things Google has done, it’s only fair to acknowledge that the company has not yet broken into a dead girl’s voicemail to sell newspapers. Elsewhere, a montage of idiotic Facebook posts is intended to shame the social network for changing its privacy settings and betraying users, but it’s hard to garner sympathy for someone who chooses to berate a cheating spouse on the world’s largest public forum. And that aforementioned showdown with the dot-com executive, as depicted onscreen, carries every hallmark of a minuscule amount of footage being stretched into a weak conclusion.
None of this is to say that Hoback’s cause is illegitimate, or that Terms And Conditions lacks lasting effect. Seeing the sinister sides to so many modern conveniences in under 80 minutes is enough to make anyone rethink their Internet habits, as well they should. (Remember, PRISM.) And some sequences, like the matter-of-fact sales pitch for a device that can extract every drop of personal info from a phone just by plugging into it, are downright chilling.
But the zeitgeist is too precious a jewel to be entrusted to the sort of filmmaker who asks a member of Anonymous, without a trace of irony, whether privacy is dead. Apart from its shallow analysis, Terms And Conditions is, if anything, not alarmist enough: Its worst-case scenario has already come true. Netizens deserve more privacy online, but failing that, they at least deserve a better explanation of why their rights have been taken away. Perhaps, in another world, they’ll get both.