It’s official: Sony caves to hacker threats, pulls The Interview

In a clear victory for North Korea, Sony has responded to terrorist threats by officially cancelling the December 25 release of “The Interview,” a comedy featuring Seth Rogen.

The decision is a reminder that, while the tech world likes to natter about how U.S. copyright laws can lead to censorship, the biggest threat to free expression these days is coming from beyond America’s borders.

The Sony announcement comes after major cinema chains like AMC, Cineplex and Cinemark on Wednesday likewise announced they would not screen the movie.

The news comes after a hacker group, which has already gained notoriety by publishing Sony’s internal documents, issued a new threat warning cinemas of 9/11-style terror attacks if they screened the movie.

The hacking attacks and the threats are widely believed to emanate from overseas cyber soldiers who object to the movie’s plot, which centers on bumbling Americans who are recruited to kill North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un. On Wednesday night, the U.S. government confirmed that North Korea, which had previously described the hacking episode as a “righteous deed,” is behind the affair.

The decision by Sony and the movie houses comes even after the Department of Homeland reportedly stated that there is no evidence that a credible threat related to the movie houses exists.

As the Wall Street Journal reported, however, Sony and the movie theaters may be less concerned about an attack than they are about the prospect of terrorist threats keeping people away from multiplexes and depressing ticket sales during the holidays.

Whatever the rationale, the outcome is appalling since it sets a precedent for other repressive regimes to induce self-censorship in democratic countries simply by making threats.

Indeed, this has already occurred with YouTube and a 14-minute video called “Innocence of Muslims,” which a California judge ordered to be removed following overseas outrage, stoked by fanatical clerics, that the video was offensive.

These events are a sobering reality check that Hollywood’s harebrained efforts at censorship via copyright laws are child’s play compared to the calls for censorship through threats of mass murder by the likes of North Korea. The most frightening thing of all is that such tactics appear to be working.

This story was updated at 5:20pm ET to note Sony’s formal announcement.

Sony tells media to hide hacking news, but threats ring hollow

As Sony’s misery grows over a massive hacking incident, the studio is lashing out in a desperate way: it is warning news agencies to destroy any leaks they receive, or else Sony will hold them responsible for any damages.

The letter, which is signed by super lawyer David Boies, was sent to various outlets, including the New York Times, the Hollywood Reporter and security blogger Brian Krebs:

It instructs recipients to notify Sony if they receive information related to the hacking and to confirm that “destruction has been completed.” Or what? Here’s the threat:

If you do not comply with this request, and if the Stolen Information is used or disseminated by you in any manner, [Sony] will have no choice but to hold you responsible for any damage or loss … including … any loss of value of intellectual property and trade secrets.

Legal scholars, however, give little credence to Sony’s threat, pointing to a Supreme Court case from 2001 that clearly shields the news outlets:

The case in question involves a radio DJ who broadcast parts of a recording that had been obtained in an illegal fashion. As the court noted, the First Amendment protects those who publish or describe such information (provided they did not have a role in obtaining it).

As a lawyer who has pled famous constitutional cases before the Supreme Court, Boies clearly knows the threats are empty. So why is he making them? It’s hard to know for sure, but the likely explanation is that Sony is desperate for somebody to do something to respond to the embarrassing series of hacks, which have disclosed everything from racist emails about President Obama to sensitive financial figures from the studio. The hackers, who want to stop the release of an impending Seth Rogen film that mocks North Korea, have also promised a “Christmas surprise.”

Sony’s discomfort is clearly understandable. But while the “stolen” (Sony’s word) information raises ethical issues, like those described by Aaron Sorkin, the studio doesn’t have appear to have a legal leg to stand on.