New film goes in search of Google's first privacy policy

'Terms And Conditions May Apply,' which premieres at Sundance today, laments the decline of users' legal rights.

Cullen Hoback on the shoot for "Terms and Conditions May Apply."
Cullen Hoback on the shoot for "Terms and Conditions May Apply." Cullen Hoback

Anyone interested in how Google's privacy policies over the years can easily compare previous versions, thanks to an archive the company has set up online. But one of the earliest privacy policies is nowhere to be found -- and it's a shame, filmmaker Cullen Hoback says, because it's a policy that put users' privacy first.

"A cookie can tell us, 'This is the same computer that visited Google two days ago,' but it cannot tell us, 'This person is Joe Smith' or even, 'This person lives in the United States,'" reads the policy, published in the year 2000, which can be found at the Wayback Machine.

Today, of course, Google makes a point of knowing whether users are in the United States. And initiatives like Google+ and Search Plus Your World are designed to give Google information like "This person is Joe Smith." That information helps Google deliver better results and services to its customers -- but, Hoback argues, by chipping away at users' anonymity online, it exposes them to a variety of new risks.

Hoback is the director of "Terms and Conditions May Apply," a documentary premiering today at the Sundance Film Festival. In it, Hoback traces the evolution of tech companies' terms of services from 2000 today, illustrating how they came to claim broader and broader rights as a result of government intervention (the Patriot Act compelled companies to collect more data than they had previously) and advertiser interest.

Along the way, Hoback traces how terms and conditions have gotten people into real trouble. In one case, a post on Facebook draws a SWAT team to the home of a New York comedian; in another, murderous search queries made public by AOL turn out to be the searches of a writer for a crime drama. By the time a young tourist is turned away at the airport after tweeting he was going to "destroy" the United States -- by which he apparently meant "get drunk" -- many viewers will start wondering when the brave new world of perpetual online surveillance will touch their own lives, if it hasn't already.

The film provides special scrutiny of Google, and argues that the company bowed to advertiser pressure by removing language from its privacy policy promising users anonymity unless they willingly gave it up.

Hoback ambushes Mark Zuckerberg in "Terms and Conditions May Apply."
Hoback ambushes Mark Zuckerberg in "Terms and Conditions May Apply." Cullen Hoback

"I think it really does show their initial value set," Hoback said. "They really did care in the beginning quite a lot about privacy. But when your profit margins come in direct opposition to your principles, sometimes those principles suffer."

Google declined to be interviewed for Hoback's documentary, the trailer for which can be found here. (CNET contacted the company for comment and will update this post when we hear back.)

It's true that taken together, tech companies' policies have had the overall effect of making it harder to use their services without giving up information including your name, age and location. It's also true that providing that information can lead to better, more relevant services. Web services are vastly more powerful today than they were in 2000, and privacy policies had to evolve to enable many of the functions that make modern-day life possible on the Internet.

But Hoback argues that keeping track of those policies has become impossible. They typically run to thousands of words, can be changed at any time, and are often difficult to understand even by those who have legal degrees.

"They're designed to be as uninviting as humanly possible," Hoback said.

Ryan Calo, an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law, has called for companies to use simple icons denoting how user data is collected and shared, offering a visual shorthand to help users make sense of privacy policies. Hoback says that's a start -- but it's not enough.

"Really what needs to change is the general perception of how our data is used," he said. The first step is awareness."

 

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