Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Terms and Conditions May Apply, Unevenly and Sporadically

Did anyone check the fine print when they voted for Obama?  Those of us who did not click “I agree” are wondering if it said “will freely rummage through your e-mail and track your every digital move.”  Cullen Hoback occasionally expresses a bit of (presumed) voter’s remorse when surveying the state of internet privacy in Terms and Conditions May Apply (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

They talk a progressive game, but Google and Facebook clearly emerge as the dastardly villains of Hoback’s documentary.  It is not just that they collect and disseminate users’ data.  They changed the rules in the middle of the game.  For new sign-ups, it might be spelled out in black-and-white, but in small all-cap sans-serif type.  Users are not supposed to read those unwieldy terms and conditions and they don’t.

TACMA spreads its outrage far and wide at the expense of the core issues under discussion—the fine print.  The question what users are agreeing to would be pertinent even if the NSA never existed.  As a case in point I have heard of but never verified, musicians reportedly using a European website to host their scores as means promoting their music reportedly signed away their publishing rights in the process.  Aside from privacy concerns, just what sort of intellectual property implications do those terms and conditions secretly hold? Frustratingly, TACMA never delves into such territory.

Understandably, Hoback is rather disturbed that Facebook, Google, and Yahoo are so willing to funnel information to the government.  However, his tone-deafness is rather laughable when he calls on Anonymous hacker-spokesman Barrett Brown to bemoan the death of privacy.  Of course, Pres. George W. Bush is frequently invoked as a bogeyman, but Hoback reluctantly admits things are the same or perhaps worse under Obama.  Indeed, he rightly points out the current administration has criminally prosecuted more government whistleblowers than all its predecessors combined.

More focus and a truly nonpartisan approach would have strengthened TACMA’s case.  (Red herrings like the UK phone-hacking scandal, apparently thrown in to give Rupert Murdoch a good tsk-tsking, frankly do the online privacy cause a disservice.)  The real truth is only a Libertarian like Rand Paul or Gary Johnson will curtail such wholesale data collection if elected, but perhaps Hoback can’t handle the truth.  A mixed but timely bag of facts and anecdotes, Terms and Conditions May Apply should at least prompt some pointed questions when it opens this Friday (7/12) in New York at the Quad Cinema.