Hollywood, be careful what you wish for

The_Interview_2014_posterIn the first day as a rookie in the North Korea Secret Service, my commander taught us the first rule of threats and extortion: you can’t threaten people to do something unless they can actually do what you want them to do.

Relax. I have never had any connection to North Korea or its Secret Service, but I assume that even the North Korean regime, as bizarre as it often looks, recognizes the first rule of threats and extortion: if someone can’t control something, you can’t threaten him to do it (or, according to Google Translate: 누군가가 뭔가를 통제 할 수없는 경우, 당신은 그것을 할 그를 위협 할 수 없습니다).

So, if, as the FBI announced today, North Korea has probably perpetrated the cyber attack on Sony, and if by attacking Sony and issuing additional threats North Korea sought to scare Sony from releasing “The Interview“, and make other studios think twice before they consider producing another movie that North Korea doesn’t like, North Korea must have believed that the threat can could effective: that Sony could effectively ensure that content that the regime dislikes does not see the light of day.

The attack on Sony is a serious matter, and anyone who cares about democracy and freedom should be worried about the threat to freedom of expression that this attack represents. George Clooney gets it, and he may not be the only one. Indeed, Hollywood studios should be the first among those who get it.

The sad irony, however, is that Hollywood studios have been lobbying relentlessly for laws that would give it more and more control over their content, and for more and more powers to remove content, and block access to content. And in another twist of irony, the Sony hack revealed Hollywood’s continuing efforts to pass SOPA-like legislation.

This should be a day or reckoning for Hollywood. Freedom of expression is more crucial to its success than copyright law would ever be. But in its relentless efforts to gain more controls and additional powers to effect internet censorship, Hollywood has forgotten that as much as copyright can be an engine of free expression, it may also be a vehicle for its suppression. Hollywood studios should recognize that the more power they have to ensure that their content can’t be accessed without their consent, the more vulnerable they become to be targets of threat and extortion by those who do not like their content and want it censored.

According to the New York Times, Sony has been “searching for ways to eventually disseminate the film, but, for the moment, it could find none. Satellite operators, cable providers, or digital portals that might be asked to pick up ‘The Interview’ could be exposed to the same online harassment plaguing Sony.” But Sony should have realized that a leaked copy of The Interview that made its way to the internet would afford it and any other distribution channel the best protection from the North Korean extortion. Even the rulers in Pyongyang (which apparently have some tech-savvy people working for them) know that threatening Sony, satellite operators, cable providers, or online authorized distributors, would be futile if the movie could still be watched with bit-torrent.

For years Hollywood has waged war on the open internet. It may have taken freedom of expression for granted and believed that only the open internet puts it at risk. Maybe it should begin rethinking its priorities. It if does, it may discover the open internet protects it as much as, and probably more, than stronger copyright law would ever do.

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