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Review: Internet Security Documentary 'Terms And Conditions May Apply'

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by Gabe Toro
July 12, 2013 4:26 PM
4 Comments
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In director Cullen Hoback’s “Terms And Conditions May Apply,” he seems to be dealing with several issues, some political, some social, none all that clear. Of course, he’s diving into the morass of conflicts between capitalism and politics, an unholy marriage that acts as a cultural ouroborous for anyone who wants to offer a serious probe, so perhaps his hands are tied almost immediately. But the mission statement seems to involve asking questions towards what we’ve accepted all along. Documentaries should be discussed as films, not as cautionary announcements. But even at its sloppiest, it’s important a film like this exists, even if it strictly plays to the chin-stroking dreadlocked liberal in the third row who can’t stop admiring their own exquisite hemp pants.

The picture takes a chronological look at the Internet, observing the very first moments where people started clicking on pages in order to gain access to information and entertainment. The first twenty minutes are rough, mostly due to the lack of actual material from the nineties and early aughts, and Hoback leans on the lame documentary trick of borrowing footage from other films and TV shows in order to fill in the blanks. It’s the strategy of a filmmaker more eager to create a collage then to tell a story or present a point of view, and material like Sandra Bullock ordering online pizza in “The Net and Ron Swanson taking a lesson in “cookies” on an episode of “Parks And Recreation makes for great, directing filler.

Soon, we delve into the real nuts and bolts of what’s going on, with Google being the focal point of these observations. Hoback takes us through the evolution of Google’s terms and services, where at the beginning there was a promise that your personal info could not be stored. Soon, with advanced technologies and the seemingly inevitable creation of the Patriot Act, these terms (which the film admits no one reads) started detailing how companies, including Google, could not only retrieve all your personal information, but could also profit from it. The lightning bolt that guides this narrative shift is Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, a target that easily invites scrutiny due to his open two-faced approach and instances of mocking his own illusory site privacy standards.

Hoback gets trapped in a sea of talking heads at certain points of the film, spewing repetitive technical talk that reveals the gizmos that make this possible, and the unfortunate consequence is having these moments counterbalanced by awkward levity. The discussion about private information sharing is followed by screenshots of Facebook users discussing how they peed their pants, vomited, and had sexual indiscretions, which sadly undermines the film’s justified anger. The following old wives’ tales of Google cookies falsely implicating the innocent are realized by cheap animation that trivializes the issue further. And when we come face-to-face with people who were captured and interrogated for falsely incriminating tweets and posts, their laughing relief seems to lend the project a slight disposability, turning the issue into a lightweight inconvenience for the middle class.

Hoback can never find a proper tone to strike: one sequence begins with the non-ironic narration, “For those of you who don’t know who Julian Assange is…” But what he does lay out through his timeline is how the loosening standards of Internet privacy led to the government finding a hole. His disinterest in the complicity of the public in having their personal information shared seems like a tacit acknowledgement that the sub-topic represents its own doc. However, the notion of the government outsourcing their illegal surveillance probing to a third party is a tantalizing, upsetting idea that barely gets any play beyond a brief late-film sequence.

Hoback makes the right choice in holding President Obama culpable for these shady dealings, particularly in contrasting clips of his early and late career to examine just exactly how his views have mutated on the topic of spying. Hoback probably should have gone easy on the “Daily Show” and “Colbert Report” clips to take a more harsh stance against this drastic reinvention of justice, but a late-film encounter with Zuckerberg seems to prove not that he and his film are dumb and cowardly, but that perhaps he’s smart enough to know what happens to people who ask the questions he does. The picture closes with a late post-script detailing the irony of David Petreaus’ warrant-less leak that led to the revelation of his affair and subsequent “retirement,” as well as the existence of Edward Snowden surviving on the fringes after revealing pivotal spy information to the public. It’s unfortunate the project seems to have been completed by the time one could probe these topics further. Even given the shapelessness of the picture, Hoback does the best he can in providing an imperfect timeline to a possibly worsening issue. [C]


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4 Comments

  • JL | July 13, 2013 12:05 PMReply

    I agree with Eric. Are we really pretending the only people concerned with government or corporate overreach on the Internet are "hippies," who don't really even exist anymore? Plus, it's imaginary. You're bringing imaginary people into your conversation as evidence of something. Apparently that something is a hatred of hemp or ... dreadlocks or Rastafarians or something else? It's weird.

  • Matthew | July 12, 2013 7:57 PMReply

    "But even at its sloppiest, it’s important a film like this exists, even if it strictly plays to the chin-stroking dreadlocked liberal in the third row who can’t stop admiring their own exquisite hemp pants."

    That's not a condescending generalization.

  • Gabe Toro | July 13, 2013 11:45 AM

    I am a liberal. I dislike being pandered towards.

  • Eric | July 12, 2013 8:26 PM

    He looses credibility when he takes a jab at them dirty liberals. I understand there is a political charge to this documentary. However, at least attempt to not let petty smug remarks reveal your inability to let your personal political stance ruin what could have been a decent review.

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