Terms and Conditions May Apply (Hoback, 2013)

tacma2I am of two minds regarding Terms and Conditions May Apply.

On the one hand, I haven’t been this depressed after a movie since An Inconvenient Truth.

On the other hand, that depression is stemming from the film’s subject matter, not its presentation. A film has to be doing something right to prompt so strong a response, even if that response is not necessarily what you think the film is aiming for.

Director Cullen Hoback does a fine job of conveying the incremental encroachments that technological and social media innovations have made on our privacy. Those inroads, combined with legislation (think Patriot Act) designed to give the government as much leeway as it thinks it need to use technology to gather information about (i.e. spy on) its citizens adds to the documentary’s chill factor.  Even if the most egregious examples of corporate and government abuse that it cites look a bit like red herrings–making me wonder if the issue the film has is with the way technology could potentially be abused rather than with the current state of privacy–the overall effect is blunted but not entirely undercut. I’m still not sure, though, if this is meant as a cautionary tale or a jeremiad?

There are some tonal misfires created by examples that I think the film meant to be scandalous but ended up convincing me only that the underlying issues are more complex than the arguments the film makes about them. A man posts a Facebook rant about service at his Apple store, using dialogue from Fight Club, and he gets a visit from the police.  I had previously heard this story reported on This American Life. Given that fact, I wonder if the experience traumatized him or turned him into a pseudo-celebrity with a cool story. A teenager opines on Twitter that President Obama had better be careful in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s execution and gets a visit from The Secret Service. A screenwriter for a television drama finds out that his search engine history, which is supposed to be anonymous and includes searches for how to murder a spouse, can be rather easily traced back to him.

These examples, to the extent they are truly meant to be shocking, actually backfire somewhat. If someone did attempt to kill the president, wouldn’t we be outraged if we later found out that something that might be construed as a thread was posted something on Twitter and nobody even investigated it? Isn’t that why you are cautioned not to make jokes about bombs at airports, since we understand that officials are required to take every threat as potentially serious?

TACMAThat’s not really my quibble with Terms and Conditions May Apply, however. In truth, I’m on (what I think is) the film’s side. Our contracts (and increasingly our laws) are presented in such a way so as to stifle debate, to make us unaware of what is happening around us until it is too late. We are increasingly unaware of the rules that govern our interactions in the virtual world, and it appears that corporations and governments may prefer it that way, since it makes it easier to manipulate those rules.

My complaint is that like An Inconvenient Truth, the film spends 95% of its run time making the argument that the current state of things is FUBAR and then, once it has convinced you, says in effect that we must all come together and do……….well, something.

Does that constitute shooting the messenger? Yes, I guess it does. A lot of positions of power look unassailable until people get together and do…well, something…and the mystery of history is that often times they themselves don’t know what they are doing or how it will disrupt the status quo. Change can come out of left field.

But yes, sometimes it comes from coordinated effort, and effort can only be coordinated if the populace is informed and educated. Terms and Conditions May Apply is a very educational film, and the very fact that I need to explain that I don’t mean that adjective as a knock probably explains why the film’s makers felt the need to include some of the more colorful stories, adding to the entertainment value at the expense of its seriousness.

I appreciated the film, even if it did make me angry. I suspect on some levels, Hoback wants me to be a little angry, thinks anger is an appropriate response to the material he is presenting and a necessary step towards getting off our collective rear ends and doing…well, something…about the ways we are being monitored and manipulated. It’s a noble effort, and I hope it succeeds at doing something more than convincing viewers that a problem exists, even if I’m not entirely sure it knows what it wants that something more to be.

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