The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Terms and Conditions May Apply

After seeing Terms and Conditions May Apply, I seriously considered giving up social media and cell phone usage altogether. Of course, I won't actually do that; those things are, at this point, essential to my work. But, boy, did this documentary ever make me think twice. If you're reading this review, odds are almost 100% that you've clicked that little box on Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, Google, or some other site that says you agree to their terms and conditions of use. Odds are just as high that you skimmed those terms and conditions, if you even bothered to look at them at all. (I'm guilty of that one, too.) It turns out there are a few things in there we should all be concerned about.

The film, directed by Cullen Hoback, looks at what's in those terms and conditions, as well as what happens when you click the “I agree” button. What it reveals is that people are sacrificing a significant part of their privacy in exchange for the use of a free, and often fun, service. That can include ownership of things. As many users are now well aware, as soon as you post a picture to Facebook, they own it and can theoretically use it in any way they wish, without financial compensation to you. Companies can also put together a psychological profile of you based on posts and tweets, making them more able to target you for sales, whether you want to be sold to or not.

Some of the film's findings are even more alarming. In recent years – that is to say, post 9/11 – many sites that require a sign-up have a clause warning you that your information may be shared. Not just shared with third parties who might want to sell you something, but shared with the government. Big brother isn't coming, he's apparently already here. Terms and Conditions offers testimony from a slate of experts, including digital rights lawyers, stating that the government can get little pieces of information about you from different websites and cell phone carriers that, when added together, give a pretty complete picture of who you are. It's easier than collecting it themselves. Social media and texts have, in effect, turned into a way to monitor U.S. citizens.

If you think you have nothing to hide, you could still be in trouble. Hoback relates some harrowing stories. The examination of one Google user's search terms yielded multiple instances of “how to kill your wife” and “decapitation photos.” Sounds like a psycho, right? In reality, the guy was a writer for the popular TV crime procedural Cold Case, researching plot points for an upcoming episode. Similarly, a street theater troupe in England found themselves detained for a couple days during the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. They were planning a performance near the wedding that required them to dress as zombies. Keep in mind, they were jailed not for doing anything, but for texting and tweeting about the possibility of doing something. We also hear from a comedian who quoted an ominous Fight Club line on his Facebook account, only to find police banging on his door a couple hours later.

One of the most troublesome things revealed in the documentary is that Google has hidden their original privacy policy. Their real policy, located using a search engine that captures the way websites used to look, claimed that personal information would never be used in this manner. Google's website currently lists an “original” policy that has been modified to reflect that personal information may, in fact, be shared. Why is Google hiding this?

Quite honestly, I wasn't sure how this subject was going to warrant a 79-minute film, but it does. Terms and Conditions May Apply hits very close to home, and that makes it gripping. Hoback moves things along in a methodical, sensible manner, designed to show how anyone who uses a cell phone or a social media account is in a precarious position. Nothing you type in is ever completed deleted, even if you can no longer see it in your feed or text history. The documentary ends with the director attempting to confront Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg about his company's information-sharing policy; Zuckerberg's reaction is both unexpected and enlightening. Terms and Conditions May Apply is urgent without being alarmist, important without being dry. Be careful what you post. It may seem innocent enough, but every little piece of your personal puzzle brings the bigger picture into sharper focus. See this film before you click “I agree” again.

( 1/2 out of four)

Terms and Conditions May Apply is unrated but contains brief strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 19 minutes.

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