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Take It Or Leave It: The legalese you accept when you use Facebook or iTunes (or NPR's digital platforms) may have you agreeing to some surprising things. Cullen Hoback's documentary Terms and Conditions May Apply illustrates just how many -- and just how much control we've obligingly signed away. (Variance Films)

'Terms And Conditions' And Us — Oh, My ...

Jul 11, 2013

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Irish tourist Leigh Bryan (left), here with director Cullen Hoback, sent a tweet to a friend before a U.S. vacation, joking that he intended to have a few drinks and "destroy America." As he tells it in Terms and Conditions, immigration authorities were less than amused.

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Trey Graham

I'm 45, single, substantially in debt and way too susceptible to jokes about redheads. And I'm telling you these things upfront because ... why not? It wouldn't be all that hard for you — or your Big Brother — to find out.

That at least is the takeaway from Terms and Conditions May Apply, a quietly appalled we-really-oughta-do something documentary in the mode of Food, Inc. or An Inconvenient Truth, which begins a leisurely theatrical rollout this weekend in New York City.

Cullen Hoback's film employs a familiar mix of archival news clips and fresh talking-head chatter, enlivened by witty animated sequences courtesy of Chris Allison and Ryan Kramer, to tackle two tightly entangled questions:

1) What have we surrendered when a multinational — or a minister of information — knows more about us than our mamas do?

2) And can we, when motives of corporate profit and national security align to militate for ever more intrusive modes of digital Peeping Tommage, ever hope to roll the shutters back down again?

To suggest answers to the first, Hoback ticks off a list of what will seem like unfortunate overreaches or utter outrages, depending on your perspective on personal privacy:

* A Minnesota father berates a Target manager after a coupon mailing offers his teen daughter a discount on baby furniture and maternity wear, only to discover that the young woman is in fact already pregnant. (Data mining? Working like it was designed to.)

* A New York City comic, frustrated with his experience at an Apple Genius Bar, takes to Facebook to quote Fight Club on the virtues of the Armalite AR-10 semiautomatic, after which a New York City SWAT team pays him a visit — and not to discuss the cinema.

* British police use social-media traffic to pre-emptively arrest a gaggle of London street-theater types made up as a zombie wedding party, holding them for more than 24 hours so 2011's royal nuptials could proceed without risking the involvement of braaaaains.

There's more, including the one about the AOL data dump suggesting that this one guy might have been planning his wife's murder ... or might have been a TV crime-drama writer Googling for plot ideas. But you get the idea: There's a lot of detail about you out there, and it's subject to a whole lot of scrutiny — and an awful lot of potential misinterpretation.

As for that second question, Hoback and his team suggest, with a kind of enervated fatalism, that between the headlong rush to make a killing on search and social media and a political establishment not eager to preside over another Sept. 11, there's not much hope of re-bottling the privacy genie.

To put it another way: With the Facebooks and the AT&Ts of the world hungry to know you better for the bottom line's sake, and with the government empowered to ask them to pass along what they know without the bother of a Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure test, the goose of privacy has been cooked, sauced and served.

But then we, the film points out gently but sternly, are as culpable as any gung-ho G-man or grasping Google exec for the situation we find ourselves in. The assembled privacy activists, from ACLU attorneys to the bespectacled, bemused musician Moby, are quick to point out that our hungry adoption of a digital lifestyle has meant the creation of a culture in which everyone's an informant on a scale the Stasi could never have dreamed of.

Each shared selfie, each sepia-toned short video, each oh-so-clever status update, under these Terms and Conditions, is an opt-in that involves a certain measure of surrender — to a new status quo we've been astonishingly willing to (click) accept.

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