Monday, November 25, 2013

Move Review: "Terms and Conditions May Apply"

I just viewed the movie "Terms and Conditions May Apply". While it doesn't seem to be a film produced by libertarians, it does a decent job highlighting how extensive the collection, permanent storage, and use of information about us has become. And it is alarming, even to those of us who were quite aware of the situation: nothing - nothing - you share online is really private. No matter how long you have known this, it remains a stunning fact.

A large amount of this information sharing is something we agree to without fully realizing it. This, of course, does not violate libertarianism; we just sign contracts without reading them. Dumb, but not illegal. (I might add, a lot of this legalese garbage is only required because of a vast number of absurd, anti-libertarian lawsuits that are allowed in today's society). Of course, I do not argue that all information should be private. 100% privacy and 0% privacy would both be unnecessary, impractical, and destructive. It should be up to the individual to strike the right balance. Unfortunately, many people- due to ignorance and/or laziness- are not making these decisions for themselves as they should, and end up giving businesses vast quantities of data under conditions that allow it to be used differently than they would expect. It's good to see efforts to educate others about the situation as this film does.

I do not agree that "privacy legislation" is the solution to businesses collecting, storing, and sharing our data, as this film seems to suggest at a few points. First of all, it's impossible to believe any legislation coming out of Washington D.C. would actually restrict data collection, storage, and sharing valued so highly by politicians and large corporations (which donate to politicians). Secondly, it's not a legitimate role of the state, and would be unconstitutional, for the government to control the contracts people make with businesses about their data.

The other entity collecting, storing, and using our info is the government. As noted at the end of the film, the Snowden leaks have revealed a trove of additional details about what’s really going on, but there is still a lot we don’t know. However, we know enough to say there’s a gigantic surveillance state that fundamentally violates the 4th Amendment. While government does directly collect information about us, most of the time it does so indirectly, by forcing businesses like Verizon, Google, or Facebook to turn over data. Shamefully, there has been little resistance to this by corporations.

Governments possessing our private information are a much greater concern than business possessing it. Businesses cannot obtain your information by force; you have to give it to them. Business cannot use the information for much more than improving marketing, which is actually a good thing (if we are going to see an advertisement, its better if it provides us with useful information). Governments, on the other hand, can abuse the information (inadvertently or not) and do anything with it, including entering your home, detaining you, and throwing you in jail, or worse.

The film takes on the common argument "if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide". It also provides the correct answer, that's garbage nobody really believes and puts to practice. (Next time someone offers that argument, see if he is willing to turn over all his passwords, keys, etc. or have cameras installed in his home.) There are plenty of activities that are not wrong yet may need to remain private. Humans act different- self-censoring- when they are being watched, and the end of the film brilliantly demonstrates this, when the crew meets Mark Zuckerberg, who asks to not be recorded and then acts differently when the cameras are "turned off".

It may be possible for all this to change, but all the powerful business and governmental interests are lined up behind the status quo, meaning the only hope is changing the minds of millions of Americans. It is hard to see a widespread recognition of the value of privacy trump the lazy convenience of going with the flow. Whatever happens, all we can do now is be prudent with what we share, knowing that whatever we post online or do in public view is likely recorded, analyzed, and permanently stored by someone else.

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