New Documentary Tackles Online Privacy

A new documentary takes a look at just what you're agreeing to by using online services

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When you’re done reading this, scroll to the bottom of the page. Unless this is your first day on the Internet, you can probably guess one of the things you’ll find: our privacy policy. You can find such policies and “terms and conditions” as part of pretty much any website, app or data-related contract. But, says filmmaker Cullen Hoback, there’s no point in clicking on the link.

He’s the director of the new documentary Terms And Conditions May Apply, in theaters July 12—a film that takes a look at just what we’re agreeing to when we click through without reading the small print. And from what he learned through his research, Hoback doesn’t think you should bother reading the policies his movie is about. For one thing, you don’t have time. (Hoback claims you’d need a month of every year dedicated to the task.) For another, you sort of don’t have a choice.

“I would never tell anyone to read these service agreements from start to finish,” Hoback says. “You either get the service or you don’t, and if you want to be a participating member of modern society, in many instances you need to incorporate these technologies in your life.”

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Hoback, whose background as a filmmaker didn’t include any tech expertise before he embarked on this project, wanted to make a movie about the way technology has changed our lives—but none of the interviews he conducted seemed to get at what he felt was the real story. Then he realized that one difference between past technological developments and those of recent years was the fact that, unlike something like a printing press, the Internet and connected devices come with contracts. Then he read one all the way through. It was the iTunes policy—which even includes a line prohibiting you from using iTunes to build a nuclear weapon—and it inspired him to turn his lens to the terms and conditions that would become the movie’s title, a series of agreements that he sees as “a huge social justice issue that hadn’t been dealt with.”

And he wasn’t the only one thinking about what those contracts allow companies to do, particularly the ways they can profit from the information they gather or provide that information to the government.

Even though the movie had been shown before its theatrical release this week, Hoback was editing it up until the very last minute. First, last November, he thought he was done—then the fuss about Instagram’s terms of service had to be added. Most recently, he added mentions of PRISM and Edward Snowden.

“Everything that happened with Snowden dovetailed very nicely with the film because it got the country and the world really concerned about the nature of digital privacy,” he says of the timing. “I do think we’re at a tipping point. People are seeing the nature of the trade now; I don’t think they necessarily saw the nature of what these quote-unquote free services were providing and what they were giving up.”

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Which is what Hoback hopes his movie helps with, given the difference between these agreements and a normal contract. You can’t read every word, you can’t negotiate, you can’t really walk away—so what can you do? The film showcases some nightmare scenarios (like the Cold Case writer whose online searches, researching for his job, make him look like a murderer) in hopes of making it seem like those who have nothing to hide still have something to lose.

“I think the first step is understanding what’s going on,” says Hoback, who adds that he now thinks the next step is using “stopgap” privacy tools and then, ultimately, using awareness to pressure the government to regulate what corporations can include in such agreements and to force companies to allow consumers to access information about themselves. (An Irish Facebook user does just that in the film, using a European information-access law, and is eventually given a massive stack of paper containing things he had deleted from the service years earlier, among much else.) To that end, the filmmaker is currently trying to get people on Capitol Hill to watch his documentary.

“I’m not hopeless about it, but we have to move soon,” he says. “We’re up against a pretty big foe and time is running out.”

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