SCIENCE FOCUS

As Sony allows The Interview to be shown, it also pressures social media on what to publish

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 December, 2014, 7:52am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 December, 2014, 7:52am
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After a pre-Christmas week full of massive backlash for caving to a vague and unsubstantiated threat by hackers supposedly from North Korea, Sony reversed course and allowed The Interview to be shown in some independent US theatres after all, thus all but ending what Senator John McCain absurdly called "the greatest blow to free speech that I've seen in my lifetime probably".

Don't get me wrong: it's unequivocally good news that North Korea or whoever hacked Sony won't succeed in invoking a ludicrous heckler's veto over a satirical movie starring Seth Rogen, but there are far greater threats to our freedom of speech in the United States. For example, Sony itself.

Lost in the will-they-or-won't-they controversy over Sony's potential release of The Interview has been the outright viciousness that Sony has unleashed on some of the biggest social-media sites and news outlets in the world. For the past two weeks, the studio has been trying to bully these publishing platforms into stopping the release of newsworthy stories or outright censoring already public information contained in the hacked emails, despite a clear First Amendment right to the contrary.

On top of Sony's worrying and legally dubious threats, the most explosive and under-read story inside the hacked trove involves Sony and its close allies at the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) attempting to censor the internet on a much larger scale, by reviving a re-tooled version of a highly controversial bill known as Sopa that was scuttled back in 2011 because of widespread fears that it would destroy online free speech as we know it.The studio's high-priced lawyer, David Boies (of Bush versus Gore fame), sent a threatening letter to Twitter warning it to delete a specific account that was tweeting TMZ-friendly emails about Brad Pitt and others found in the "Guardians of Peace" data. Sony also demanded that Twitter stop every other account from publishing anything from the emails whatsoever.

The letter cited various laws, most of which could not possibly be used to censor online content. Several intellectual property and free expression lawyers openly mocked Sony's demands, and Twitter has commendably not bowed to them - at least not yet. But that doesn't mean the Hollywood threats won't ultimately have their intended chilling effect upon anyone else with credibility in America threatening to speak freely about Hollywood.

Sony sent a similarly threatening letter to several news organisations that reported on the hacked emails a week and a half ago, saying the movie studio "would have no choice" but to hold the media companies "responsible" for whatever happened, whatever that means. Sony didn't even bother to cite any law that these news organisations were allegedly violating, most likely because Boies knew full well there weren't any.

The US supreme court ruled more than a decade ago that news organisations have the First Amendment right to publish stolen information - even if they know it was originally obtained illegally.

It's unclear if Sony actually thinks their threats will scare news outlets into submission, but it's possible at least some of the news Sony would like to stop is about as far from gossip as it can get: a formerly secret plan, code-named "Project Goliath", hatched by the MPAA, Sony and five other major movie studios to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars convincing state attorneys general to pressure Google into censoring all sorts of websites in the name of anti-piracy - without a judge involved at all. If successful, the result would fundamentally alter the open nature of the internet.

Since the Goliath story was first reported earlier this month, Google has sued Mississippi's state attorney general after he sent the company harassing subpoenas, and in an unusually strong public statement, the tech giant accused the MPAA of "trying to secretly censor the Internet".

Nobody but the criminals who originally hacked Sony's emails really believe that truly private information such as social security numbers or medical information should be published by news organisations. And it hasn't. We should also acknowledge that Hollywood executives, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt deserve privacy like the rest of us. But that doesn't mean Sony gets to unilaterally decide what gets censored on the internet and what doesn't.

The Guardian