5 real life villains in the Sony hack drama

News, Celebrity, Money

In the bizarro-world of end-of-year news, it’s come to this: Sony Pictures announces the release of a new Seth Rogan – James Franco comedy titled “The Interview.” The plot? Two tabloid journalists land an interview with reclusive North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and along the way they are recruited by the CIA to turn their interview into an opportunity for assassination. Hijinks ensue.

In the weeks leading up to the film’s Christmas release, a group calling itself “Guardians of Peace” — which U.S. officials now suspect is a cover for Bureau 121, the cyberwarfare division of the North Korean military — hacks the corporate email of Sony Pictures and releases the resulting treasure trove of private correspondence to the media.

Sony is embarrassed. It sternly warns the media not to further disseminate the email. That works about as well as you’d expect it to.

At the same time, a group of former Sony employees sues the company for leaving itself vulnerable to cyber-attack. They claim Sony didn’t adequately secure its corporate network.

Threats start to emerge. The hackers threaten retribution, evoking the violence of 9/11 if the movie is screened. Despite reassurances from law enforcement that there is no indication of an active plot against movie theaters, yesterday brought the bombshell that most major U.S. theater chains, citing the safety of their patrons, have decided not to show the movie.

Within hours, Sony announces it is withdrawing “The Interview” from release. It also says it has no plans for a digital-only release.

It sounds like this could be the plot of a film, and for those who think that protecting free expression is important, there’s no shortage of villains at work. But as with any good film, some villains have more complex motives than others:

  • Sony Pictures: As an enterprise that ostensibly is dedicated to artistic expression (even if that expression includes bombs like “After Earth” and “Ishtar”), Sony sure folded up tent in a hurry as the threats came out. It’s understandable, in a way – Sony has been getting pummeled by the media and public opinion since the hack first occurred. But why not let braver theaters show the movie if they want to? Or, better yet, why not just release it widely online? It would be a watershed moment, and it would ensure that the movie would be seen by far more people than if North Korea had simply ignored it.
  • Sony attorney David Boies: David, great effort on that Bush v. Gore nastiness, and we appreciate your work putting California’s Proposition 8 to bed (even as those of us in Seattle haven’t quite forgotten your efforts to break up Microsoft). But now you pull this? Threatening the media with legal action if they publish private information that has been given to them by the hackers? I know Sony is embarrassed and upset, but I also know that you know that the media has every right to run with this story. It’s called “client control,” David. You should use it to keep Sony from embarrassing themselves further.
  • The former employees who are suing Sony: Quit whining, you crybabies. Nobody cares about your 2006 paystubs; we’re too busy reading about how Sony executives think Angelina Jolie is a “minimally talented spoiled brat.” And it’s not like the standard of care for protection of corporate data requires Sony to be able to withstand the concerted efforts of hackers backed by the entire resources of a pissed-off, batshit-crazy sovereign nation. Unless, of course, Sony knew about the hack and didn’t take steps to lock things down …
  • The movie theater chains: These guys caved at the first sign of trouble. But let’s face it: theaters aren’t exactly bastions of free expression. They’re purely business enterprises, designed to sell an experience (and a whole lot of overpriced soda and popcorn) to a mass audience. If these threats kept people away from the holiday movie season — and we’re not just talking “The Interview”, but the whole schedule of holiday releases — it would be very, very bad for business. Though not as bad as the off chance that there was some validity to the threats and a theater was hit by an attack after brazenly going forward. The memory of the Aurora theater shooting, and subsequent lawsuits, is still fresh in the industry’s mind. It’s a pretty easy decision to take a pass on showing this movie.
  • The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: If it seems strange that a foreign government would pay any attention whatsoever to a Seth Rogen bro-com, well, you haven’t been paying attention to the medieval kleptocracy that is the DPRK. North Korea blends old-line Communism with dynastic succession and near-deification of its leaders, including the baby-faced Kim Jong Un. The country starves as its leadership rejects anything resembling normal relations with the rest of the world. And if there’s any question about the wisdom of their approach, contrast how North Korea has fared compared to South Korea over the 62 years since the countries were divided.

So if there’s a real villain in our cyber-cinema-hackdown, it’s the government of North Korea and those who helped them with this effort. For while the world isn’t going to be much worse off if it is deprived of viewing “The Interview,” there is a broader principle at stake. People should be able to express themselves freely, subjected not to government censorship or pressure, but only to public criticism and mockery (or worse yet, apathy) when their work is found wanting.

Rogan and Franco’s movie may well be deserving of a dismal rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But it’s a darker day for us all if we are deprived of making that assessment because of the threats of some thin-skinned leader.

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