North Korea 1, Free Speech 0 - How to Even the Score

Thomas Warns*

If you were planning on seeing The Interview, you might be out of luck.

If you were planning on seeing The Interview, you might be out of luck.

For the past several weeks, Sony Pictures has been reeling from a hack attack which has seen the unauthorized release of several movies online, as well as the release of many unflattering (to say the least) emails. The hackers have total control over the Sony Pictures computer network, to the point that operations are carried out largely via fax and telephone calls. Sony Pictures also announced that it was stopping all active filming, due to issues with payments.

The hacking attack reached a new peak today when Sony Pictures decided to cancel the release of the movie The Interview. This was because of the hackers’ threats to commit “9/11 type” attacks on movie theaters that showed the film, which prompted many theaters to back out of showing it. Sony Pictures will eat the $42 million budget as a loss, but the damage to their reputation is far worse.

The FBI has been working with Sony Pictures to discover who was behind the attacks, and for weeks, the rumors were that the North Korean government was behind it. For its part, the North Korean government would not confirm or deny involvement, but did praise the hackers for their work, calling it a “righteous deed.” The rumors are rumors no more however – U.S. government officials have confirmed that the North Korean government ordered the attack.

Assuming they’re not mistaken, where does this leave us now? Sony’s decision is a disappointing capitulation to a series of terrorist threats, and makes one wonder what could happen in the future – for instance, can Putin order his cyber-hackers to blackmail a newspaper into dropping a negative story about him? Capitulation today creates incentives for groups to attempt this same destructive behavior in the future, and further limits our freedom of expression. That is not to say that Sony should be thrown under the bus – they have a business to run, and they likely made what they thought was the worst of a set of bad choices. But this already appears to be having ripple effects, which will limit the freedom of expression of American actors and producers. Are parodies of all dictators off limits?

This whole incident unquestionably requires a response from the U.S. government, but what kind? North Korea effectively declared cyber-war against us, and so far it looks to have won. They infiltrated a corporation operating in America, completely brought it to its knees, and then had them cave to their demands after threatening violence on the level of America’s worst ever terrorist attacks. This coordinated attack, following earlier threats, goes far beyond the normally bellicose rhetoric from Pyongyang. President Obama and Congress cannot stand idly by, nor are they likely to.

Is this man really going to decide which movies we can and can't see?

Is this man really going to decide which movies we can and can't see?

The President could retaliate with a cyber-counterattack, but that might risk a dangerous escalation, and further might play into Kim Jong-Un’s hands. The President could also openly denounce North Korea, and ask the international community to join him; unfortunately it is difficult to imagine how this would change anything in what is already the world’s most isolated country. The best response would likely be for Sony Pictures to release The Interview online for free, so that more people would see it than if it had been screened in movie theaters and sold on DVDs. At the very least, we can be thankful that the Kim Jong-Un can’t stop us from watching the 2004 classic Team America: World Police, which got its fair share of digs in against America as well as Kim Jong-Il (who is revealed to be a cockroach in a man’s body at the end). Hopefully other comedians and artists will take on Kim Jong-Un (we’re looking at you SNL), and prove that we will not be paralyzed with fear by a madman.

We can hope that at the very least, this embarrassing episode convinces both government and corporate officials to beef up cyber-security; one need not think long to imagine the consequences that could have flowed if the hackers’ goal was not merely to stop the release of a comedy film. But beefing up defenses for the next cyber-attack is only part of the battle. Americans must be willing to stand tall in the face of these threats, and not let the likely hollow threats of a two-bit, third World dictator keep us from making our movies. And the best way to fight back right now would be to laugh at him. So by all means, please watch this, or any number of Kim Jong-Un satire videos on the internet. And bask in the freedom that we hold dear, and ought to protect.

*Thomas Warns is a J.D. Candidate in the Class of 2015 at New York University, and the Editor-in-Chief for the N.Y.U. Journal of Law & Liberty.