'Terms and Conditions' tackles online privacy

Cullen Hoback doesn't know what Mark Zuckerberg thinks of his documentary "Terms and Conditions May Apply." But he's already made the Facebook leader smile once.

Toward the end of the documentary, which screens Friday and May 2 at the Newport Beach Film Festival, Hoback does an ambush interview with Zuckerberg, parking outside his Palo Alto home and intercepting him to ask a few questions about how Facebook and other websites affect users' privacy. After Hoback asks a question or two, his unwilling subject asks him to "please not" record the encounter.

The filmmaker, who brought a small camera crew with him, has his team comply — but keeps another tiny camera secretly recording in his glasses. When Zuckerberg thinks he's no longer being filmed, he breaks into a relaxed grin, which Hoback captures in a freeze-frame.

"Mark Zuckerberg smiled at me," he says in the film's narration. "And you know why? Because he thought I had stopped recording."

Hoback, who said he spent months before that encounter trying to set up an interview with Facebook officials, is no enemy of Zuckerberg or his enterprise. He has a profile of his own on the website, and for that matter so does "Terms and Conditions May Apply," which premiered in January at the Slamdance Film Festival and had amassed 19 "likes" as of Thursday.

What concerns the filmmaker, though, is the privacy that many users risk when they create profiles on Facebook and any number of other sites. Throughout the 79-minute documentary, Hoback tracks the places where personal information can end up: government think tanks, corporate databases, the hands of law enforcement. All those chain reactions can begin just with a user clicking on the phrase "I agree," which fills the screen in more than one eerie close-up.

Sometimes, the material made available by those agreements is merely embarrassing; in one montage, the film shows a series of Facebook posts in which users describe wetting their pants, cheating on spouses and more. Other times, the consequences are more dire. One of the more chilling vignettes involves an Irish man who was detained at an airport upon arrival because he had tweeted about wanting to "destroy" America — slang, in his dialect, for "party."

You'll also meet a crime novelist whose Google searches roused suspicion, plus a seventh-grader who was paid a Secret Service visit at school because of a post that was misinterpreted as a threat to President Obama. Washington in general comes off badly throughout the film, which is dotted with footage of congressional hearings in which the status quo emerges unshaken. Then again, government leaders aren't immune either — the film notes that former CIA director David Petraeus stepped down after the government tracked indiscretions through his emails.

So what, for Hoback, is the solution? Should users read every word of those epic paragraphs that they agree to when launching their latest profile? Of course not — in the film, he notes that it would take the equivalent of an entire work month for a typical person to review everything that he or she accepted online. More reasonable, he said, would be a warning label system similar to the pharmaceutical industry's, where users could see in a few words or symbols what the agreements entailed.

Whatever change ultimately comes to online privacy, he noted, may require a grass-roots campaign.

"I think it has to start with all of us," Hoback said. "I think it has to start with the individuals using these services."

With the film having screened at just a few festivals, the director hasn't gotten any responses from major companies, but he expects that to change as it goes into wider release. Chris Gaither, a senior communications manager with Google, said he hasn't seen "Terms and Conditions" yet and doesn't know any colleagues who have. He stressed, though, that his company makes safety a priority and debuted an easier-to-follow privacy policy last year.

"Privacy is really important to our users, and it's really important to us," Gaither said in an email. "We're constantly working to ensure strong security, protect privacy and make Google more effective and efficient. We invest hundreds of millions of dollars to help keep our users safe online, and we create easy-to-use tools that allow users to control the information they share."

On the issue of privacy, "Terms and Conditions" does show restraint at least once: When the camera shows Hoback looking up Zuckerberg's home address online, it cuts away before the address appears onscreen. Still, Hoback said the decision was mostly an artistic one and that, in the Internet age, a celebrity like Zuckerberg has even less privacy than most people.

"It just ended up being cut that way," he said. "It's easy enough to find it. If you look up Mark Zuckerberg's home address, it's right there."

'Terms and Conditions May Apply'

Where: Triangle Square Cinemas, 1870 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa (Friday), Island Cinema 7, 999 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach (May 2)

When: 8 p.m. Friday; 8:15 p.m. May 2

Cost: $14

Information: (949) 253-2880 or http://www.newportbeachfilmfest.com

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