With the Edward Snowden case still making headlines, Terms And Conditions May Apply is nothing if not timely. Written and directed by Cullen Hoback, the movie looks at the erosion of online privacy since the passing of the Patriot Act, and it argues that the biggest Internet behemoths—Facebook, Google, Amazon, etc.—have become little more than glorified domestic spies for the American government and Big Business. Hoback even manages to include a brief mention of Snowden, who just went public with his concerns about CIA snooping a month ago.
That said, no one goes to theatrical docs for timeliness, TV and the Internet being so much speedier. People go for depth, or to see a subject come alive dramatically, and Terms And Conditions stumbles on both fronts. Even at a mere 80 minutes, it feels stretched thin, both in research and in insight. And it’s desperately un-cinematic: A good half of the running time consists of text-heavy screen captures—privacy agreements, emails, Facebook messages, etc.—or of fair-use snippets from well-known Hollywood films (a.k.a. the lazy documentarian’s best friend). When Hoback wants to show that the Internet overlords are stealing our souls, for instance, he cuts to a clip of a Death Eater sucking the life out of Harry Potter. Later, when ruminating on the government’s ability to suss out crime online before it’s committed in the real world, he cuts to—yes—Tom Cruise making an arrest in Minority Report. It’s like a free-association game for the incorrigibly literal-minded.
Terms And Conditions does at least encourage some worthwhile reflection. Before watching it, it’s very easy to side with the likes of David Simon, Frank Rich, and all the other commentators who’ve taken to pointing out the hypocrisy of privacy complaints. (As someone put it on Twitter recently: “‘Stop spying on us online!’ shouted the generation that shares absolutely everything about itself online.”) But a civilized society attempts to protect people from their own stupidity and recklessness, and Hoback makes it clear just how deliberately the U.S. government has discouraged the creation of stronger privacy laws and how easily such laws could be enacted. He also presents some strong counterexamples to the oft-repeated claim that “you don’t need to worry if you’re not doing anything wrong,” such as a man who had his line of credit drastically reduced simply for shopping at Wal-Mart online (his bank having decided Wal-Mart shoppers are deadbeats), and a British tourist detained by U.S. law enforcement for tweeting that he planned to “destroy America” over the course of his holiday. Terms And Conditions may not be a particularly well-made doc, but it provides a much-needed wake-up call.