This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
"Terms and Conditions May Apply" proves that an important subject doesn't necessarily make an essential documentary. The film concerns the use and sale of private citizens' information by third parties on websites like Google and Facebook. It's an especially hot topic given the government's ongoing attempts to extradite Edward Snowden, the ex-NSA whistleblower who released classified documents about PRISM and other government wire-tapping programs.
Snowden's case suggests that analysis of that kind of data is now more important than the fact that that data exists or has been released. We're past the point where knowing that the truth is out there is enough to educate or move the people to action. We need the kind of analysis a journalist can give. Interview subjects ranging from ACLU spokesperson Chris Soghoian to Germany's Federal Protection Commissioner Peter Schaar explain what companies, the government, and other third parties can do to legally spy on you. But director Cullen Hoback already knows his thesis, and therefore doesn't probe too deeply to prove it. For example, Hoback tellingly doesn't interview journalists or anyone with a more balanced viewpoint who might give perspective to his more polemical talking head subjects' talking points. "Terms and Conditons May Apply" is consequently more provocative than informative.
The end of the "age of privacy," to use Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's phrase, is the real main subject of "Terms and Conditions May Apply." Hoback shows that over the years, the privacy policies for social media websites have allowed third-party companies and the government greater and greater access to their information. This is partly a response to the Patriot Act, though Hoback doesn't explain how, practically speaking, that law affected widespread change.
Instead, Hoback prefers to show that the invasion of privacy is possible. But he never explains, beyond soundbite-friendly remarks, how Facebook and Google have taken users information and used it. So viewers are presented with factoids like, "Consumers lose $250 million due to what's hidden in fine print," but the film never practically explains how that happens.