How I Became an Activist Filmmaker, Lifting the Veil on Infringements on Our Privacy

My hope was that "Terms and Conditions May Apply" could take people down the same rabbit hole I experienced, waking them up to a massive civil liberties nightmare

Someone recently asked me about my new documentary, “Terms and Conditions May Apply”: “In making this film, did you consider yourself an investigator or an activist?”

The truth is, I started out as an investigator and couldn’t help but become an activist. In the early stages of development, I had no idea that I was actually creating a documentary about the greatest threat to civil liberties of our times: what it really means when you click “I Agree” after the “Terms and Conditions” on every app you download and every website you visit.

My background was in making films, so my main relationship with technology came in the form of working with Final Cut Pro and cameras. I had never coded, and I had certainly never read a terms-and-conditions agreement. In fact, I barely even knew what a cookie was — it sounded like a delicious treat that made my internet experience better.

I thought like so many people; I had been blindly using services like Google, Facebook and my iPhone and not deeply considering the implications. Hey, everyone else is doing it, so it must be fine!

The investigative question I launched with was this: What is the hidden impact modern technology is having on us? I spoke with over 20 experts trying to outline the behavioral, physiological and developmental impact that technology like cellphones and social networks had wrought. And after nearly a year of work, sitting with my first rough cut, I felt like I wasn’t any closer to an answer.

It still hadn’t struck me that the answer to my dilemma actually was right in front of my face: Everything in our digital lives comes with those impossible to read, obnoxiously long contracts. It was this revelation that sent me down the rabbit hole that would change everything.

I completely abandoned my first edit. I was ultimately able to retain about 5 percent of the interviews I had previously shot. Interviews with the “Charlie Bit My Finger” family, “David After the Dentist,” a cyborg, a homeless man who found his daughter on Twitter … I just had to kill babies left and right.

This was not a story about technology at all; it was a story about what was going on behind that technology.

We had agreed to a surveillance state — corporations were using it for marketing and the government was using it to monitor. It was a pretty sweet deal for both of them. The Silicon Valley mantra that privacy is dead sure is a convenient notion when your business model relies on that very premise — anonymity wasn’t profitable.

The government, meanwhile, was able to have unprecedented access to information on what its citizens were doing.

The deeper I dug, the less I saw myself as an investigator and the more I became an activist. How was this not the most talked about issue of our times? (Remember, this was pre-Snowden.)

But I knew the answer. Despite frequent articles appearing in major journals about privacy violations in technology, independently they weren’t effective. And this is where the film could step in. I could connect all of the dots from the last 20 years. Paint a portrait of how we arrived at this place.

The role of the film could be meditative in countering the 24-hour news cycle. I would connect what I now call the Triple Threat to privacy in an accessible and clear way. This Triple Threat includes the personal layer of privacy (privacy settings), the corporate layer, and the governmental layer.

My hope was that the film could take people down the same rabbit hole I experienced, waking them up to this massive civil liberties nightmare. This couldn’t be a film for the believers; it needed to be a film for everyone else. And since it’s a film about the digital world, I needed to come up with a way to make the film visually exciting.

I projected the agreements onto a large textured screen. This allowed me to get dramatic angles, avoid screen distortion and employ camera moves. But finding a visual style wouldn’t be enough. If I really wanted to make this a film for everyone, it needed to have the experience of a narrative feature. But how to do this in a film without a main character?

While I narrated the film, it’s is not about my journey; it’s about the journey of the audience watching the film. In building the structure, I always considered the audience to be my main character. After all, this stuff is actually happening to them, the viewers. So the film has an inciting incident; it’s broken into acts, I introduce a new “love interest” in the second act (the government), and s— gets dark in the third until it culminates on Mark Zuckerberg’s lawn.

Even the examples I show of innocent people having their lives uprooted because of ineffective spy systems — these were selected because they’re universally identifiable. So in a sense, they answer the question of, “I’m not doing anything wrong, so why does it matter?” SWAT could be at your door tomorrow if you search for the wrong things, see, it happened to this guy…

Now that my awakening has made me a privacy activist, I have to say that my hope is as many people as possible will watch this film. We have to start with awareness, but ultimately we need to move toward having access to our data, and control over it.

Data should be owned by the individual, not the corporation. Services like Facebook have us trapped right now. There should be a SIM card for our online identities, or what I like to call data mobility. We should be able to take our data, delete our data and share it when we see fit.

In order to reclaim our privacy, we have to start thinking of data as a shadow of self. The founding fathers didn’t realize the Internet was coming, but if they had, you can be damn well sure they’d have wanted The Constitution to apply there. too.

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