Terms and conditions may apply

WEB-terms and conditions- Mark Burnham

A film screening at SFU Burnaby suggests that Internet users are signing up for more than the latest iPhone app when they check off “I agree” to the Terms and Conditions.

Before leaving on vacation to the US, Irish tourist Leigh Bryan tweeted that he was going to “destroy America.” Once his plane landed, Bryan and his girlfriend were interrogated by the Department of Homeland Security, detained, handcuffed, and even put in a detention center before being sent back to Europe.

Bryan’s is just one example shown in the documentary Terms and Conditions May Apply of social media and government surveillance working together with user consent but not necessarily awareness.

The film was screened on March 12 as part of an event organized by the Teaching and Learning Commons called “What Don’t You Know about the Social Media You Use.”

The event explained that Internet users are putting their personal information up for grabs by agreeing to the terms and conditions — contracts that are long and full of enough technical terminology to put off even the most well-intentioned.

Once users agree to the terms and conditions, online services have the authority to record every upload, tweet, search and click. As SFU student Adam Van der Zwan put it, “We really have no Internet privacy.”

Free social media like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter rely on data mining to generate income, but the dissemination of users’ personal information rarely stops there.

Van der Zwan, a third-year communications major, sat on the discussion panel along with Jon Festinger, a law professor at UBC, Kevin O’Neill, associate professor of education technology at SFU, and Stuart Poyntz, an SFU communications assistant professor. All four panelists agreed that this breach of user trust becomes much more threatening when the government gets its hands on supposedly private information.


Hoback described Facebook as “the CIA’s dream come true.”


The director of the film, Cullen Hoback, described Facebook as “the CIA’s dream come true,” and said that government agencies like the NSA and Canada’s CSEC continue to monitor Internet users based on information that they’ve willingly provided to their favourite websites or service providers.

As in the case of Leigh Bryan’s tweet, this can lead to the harassment of civilians for crimes that they haven’t committed.

Festinger claims that Canadians are even less aware of government surveillance than our US counterparts. “We haven’t really had our own Snowden,” he said, however that doesn’t mean that our online activities aren’t being monitored.

While many argue that they don’t have anything to hide, the film claims Internet users don’t know what could be considered a threat to national security. Either way, by simply having an online presence, hiding is no longer an option.

After watching Terms and Conditions May Apply, Van der Zwan said, “I’ve definitely become more hostile toward the Internet.”

Van der Zwan says he believes government surveillance is necessary to national security, but not to the extent it’s happening at the moment, and not without informed consent. He said, “If the government needs to survey everything we do online, we should at least be issued an official statement, or reason, that will notify us in advance.”

“The answer is law and regulation,” Festinger agreed. However, he worries that corporate lobbyists will continue to evade any baseline privacy law for online services. Online services are only as valuable as the user data they have compiled, and anonymity doesn’t bring in a profit.

Van der Zwan says Internet users must first be made aware of how they’re being taken advantage of before things can change — in other words, users must understand that terms and conditions always apply.