Featured Documentary

Terms and Conditions May Apply 2013 - 76 min.

Director: Cullen Hoback

Created in 2013, a mere 9 years after the launch of Facebook and only 15 years after the founding of Google, this documentary inspected the language used in user-service agreements on the web. The collection tactics implemented by these entities were examined and the usage of the information gathered was outlined. Companies such as Google, Facebook and LinkedIn were cited for having poorly-worded and misguiding privacy policies/terms of service. The language used in these novel-length documents allowed their publishers to harvest the agreeing users’ information as they please and to legally provide it to third-party users.

Through the lens of filmmaker Cullen Hoback, viewers are provided with a chilling reminder of how heedlessly we may click “I Agree” after scrolling through pages of uninviting text. He also demonstrates how what can be perceived as harmless can just as easily summon a SWAT team. A young school boy's tweet did just that. The attitude towards these now commonplace agreements is one of hopelessness, that these people (whoever they may be) already know everything that they want to. Hoback’s message to those watching is that the phrase “terms and conditions may apply” really means “the sentence structure of our policy allows us to use any data we please as we want” when put into practice. The documentary offers many disheartening and downright terrifying facts about these policies.

Hoback states that if one was to read everything in these user/service agreements, it would take one full month, that’s 180 hours every year” and that according to The Wall Street Journal “consumers lose over $250 million dollars due to what’s hidden in these agreements.” The film provides examples of language used in these documents that so many of us skim right over. One policy’s sentence structure made wire-tapping legal without specifically using words that have such a negative connotation. AT&T’s terms of service contract says that they may “investigate, prevent or take action regarding illegal activities”. Hoback focuses on the word prevent and describes how this one little word creates a huge grey space where the company may do as they please with the access a user grants through clicking “I Agree”

Most of the information was thought-provoking and some of the facts are actually somewhat comedic due to how unbelievable they sound. The unfortunate reality of these policies is that while we check the box stating that we will operate in compliance with them, the choice was not really ours’. Often, companies will state that by utilizing the service these agreements refer to, we are automatically providing them with consent. Many times it is beneficial and even necessary for users to incorporate these technologies into their lives; complying with the policies is part of the deal. There is no “no thanks” option, one either able to utilize the service or not.

A stark contrast is evident when the comparison is made between today’s developments of new technologies now and what occurred in the past. The term past can refer to the invention of the printing press or something as recent (relatively speaking) as a landline telephone. Neither technology required a terms of service agreement; implementing these inventions into everyday life did not involve jumping through hoops of small text. Hoback’s unnerving depiction of the relationship between the government, corporations, technologies and us not only raises the question of whether privacy is lost but more importantly, if anyone cares.

Mark Zuckerberg appears in the film.