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Terms and Conditions May Apply: Seattle International Film Festival Review

The Bottom Line

Engaging doc is useful but more summary than investigation

Venue:

Seattle International Film Festival

Opens:

Friday, July 12 (Variance Films)

Director:

Cullen Hoback

Cullen Hoback's documentary about privacy and online rights should benefit from current concern over data-mining.

SEATTLE — Know those Dickens-length user agreements you click "Agree" to before doing anything substantial online? If you're still under the impression they're benign and boilerplate, Cullen Hoback's Terms and Conditions May Apply may be just the thing -- a roundup of the ways our digital lives don't belong to us as much as we expect them to. Timing could hardly be better for the doc, whose concerns align well with the current NSA data-mining debate; though it mostly summarizes available arguments instead of uncovering new facts, it's an accessible primer that could have some appeal at arthouses.

Concerned with more than privacy and government spying, the film starts off with consumer-geared concerns -- how "buying" digital goods differs drastically from buying books and LPs in the past, for instance. A couple of comic examples illustrate how much a company can get away with in what many experts view as legally binding license agreements: As a 2010 April Fool's prank, retailer GameStation put a clause in its terms and conditions claiming rights over users' immortal souls.

Interviewees make it clear that companies don't actually want you to read what you're swearing you've digested: Placing enormous amounts of text in all-caps using a sans serif font, a designer says, essentially turns it into texture instead of language. The film further claims that reading every license we "agree" to would take 180 hours a year, or about a month's worth of office hours.

Things get more serious with summaries of social media privacy concerns. Though much of this ground is well-covered, viewers may be surprised by some tidbits: Deleting information on Facebook, we're told, actually just means you're hiding it from yourself -- the data is still on the company's servers, for who knows how long.

Those still inclined to respond to privacy concerns with an "I've got nothing to hide" shrug might be moved by anecdotes in which innocent (if dumb) online jokes prompt SWAT team raids and consumers with good credit see their limits drop just because they've shopped at stores frequented by deadbeats. Think encrypting your data is the answer? Technologists point out how quickly code-breaking tools improve, meaning secret messages can simply be stored for a few years until your double-tough password is as easy to crack as "1234."

A welcome stunt involving Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg caps the film, showing that even privacy's most visible opponent would rather not be filmed as he walks down the street.

Production Company: Hyrax Films

Director-Editor: Cullen Hoback

Producers: John Ramos, Cullen Hoback, Nitin Khanna

Executive producers: Nitin Khanna, Karan Khanna, Jay Walia, Jaswinder Grover

Director of photography: Ben Wolf

Music: John M. Askew

No rating, 79 minutes