Terms and Conditions May Apply is a documentary released earlier this year by American filmmaker Cullen Hoback. It explores the dangers of agreeing to the well-known, yet seldom read, terms and conditions and privacy policies found in user agreements. Here’s a brief overview of what can be seen in this fascinating but alarming documentary.
“Anything that has been digitalised is not private and that is terrifying,” says musician Moby. These words will be engraved in the back of your subconscious after you’ve watched this documentary. Director Cullen Hoback created this film with a single theme in mind: “Is privacy dead?” Through its length he delves deep to answer this question, interviewing personalities such as Harvey Anderson (senior vice president of legal affairs at Mozilla Firefox), Chris Anderson (former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine) and highlights key interviews with Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook CEO), Eric Smidt (Google’s executive chairman) and many more, concerning the subject of privacy policies and the terms and conditions (Ts and Cs) found in the user agreements of such monolithic sites.
Whenever we use a mobile app or sign up for an online service we agree to the provider’s terms and conditions. How many of us has actually ever read them? Gamestation, a UK-based video games retailer, put this to the test. As an April Fool’s joke in 2009, for one day, they put in their terms and conditions that, if you agreed, they would legally own your “immortal soul”. Over 7,000 people (88%) agreed to these terms and conditions. Apparently, to read all the typical user agreements the average Internet user comes across, it would take around 180 hours a year.
So, they’re tediously long and it is safe to assume that almost no one reads them. But Brian Lawler, an award-winning professor from the California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) and expert on typography says it’s about more than just length. If he were to “make a user agreement uninviting” he would “use a small font” and “set it in all-caps”. He goes on to explain that the eye then starts seeing a single texture rather than separate words. This is the exact way most user agreements are set up. This leads us to another question: why would companies try to make their agreements uninviting? Is it possible that they are trying to hide something in those vast amounts of text?
One of the main topics covered in Terms and Conditions May Apply is that of the privacy policies found in a typical user agreement. “Privacy policies are not there to protect our privacy but to take it away,” Hoback remarks at one point in the film. Apparently, companies set up their privacy policies to protect themselves if they were ever to violate a user’s privacy. Many companies also include a fine print that states they can change these policies at any time without notifying the user.
So what is the point of accessing a user’s data? Eli Pariser, author of Filter Bubble: What the internet is hiding from you, explains that even though a service like Google seems free they are actually generating around $500 per user, annually, in terms of the information we freely provide them. In July 2013 in the U.S. alone, Google had 1,96,564,000 unique visitors. Multiply that by $500 and you can see how Google is one of the richest companies in the world.
Why is information so valuable? Every decision a company makes, as with every decision you make, is based on certain information they have at their disposal. The more information you have the better informed decisions you can make. In today’s consumer-driven world it is essential for companies to learn the desires of their consumers. This way they can advertise their products accordingly, catch your attention and then rake in the profits.
Another alarming fact brought up in this documentary is the authority of certain governments and how they can use these “information gathering” platforms to access personal data on users in the name of “national security”. In early 2001 in the US, the concern about Internet privacy reached a crescendo and over a dozen bills were introduced into US Congress to increase Internet privacy. A few months later 9/11 happened. It seems a far-fetched conclusion to draw but, according to the documentary, 9/11 was the “pre-emptive strike” to put the Patriot Act into place, quickly dissolving all previous attention towards Internet privacy.
The average person is becoming more transparent. Mark Zuckerberg said that when he was busy creating Facebook a lot of people asked him, “Why would anyone want to publicly share their information on the Internet?” Now, ten years later, we willingly share vast amounts of information more openly than ever before. US Senator Ellen Corbett was asked about her opinion on the state of Internet privacy and she replied: “Yeah, we should be worried.”
Hoback’s documentary provides a large amount of serious facts while skilfully employing relevant humor. The film unfolds in an intriguing and suspenseful way, keeping your attention up until the very end.