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
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]