What ‘The Interview’ controversy says about the cost of threatening free speech

The Interview Seth Rogen and James Franco

By declaring war on Sony, the Guardians of Peace only helped their enemies.

Regardless of whether North Korea was actually responsible for hacking Sony, America can learn an interesting lessons from the brouhaha surrounding the release of The Interview. As a result of this incident, we have learned that the Internet—which was used by the Guardians of Peace in an attempt to intimidate other people—can also stoke the flames of public curiosity in ways that can be profitable to corporations which might otherwise succumb to a knee-jerk instinct to be intimidated.

It’s first important to emphasize that numerous cybersecurity experts doubt the Kim Jong-un regime’s involvement in the Sony hacks themselves. “We can’t find any indication that North Korea either ordered, masterminded, or funded this attack,” explained Kurt Stammberger, a senior vice president at the cybersecurity firm Norse Corp, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “Nobody has been able to find a credible connection to the North Korean government.” “It’s [the FBI’s conclusion] just too quick,” argued Marc Rogers, principal security researcher at CloudFlare, to Recode.net in reference to the speech with which the FBI identified North Korea as the culprit. “Digital forensics is one of the hardest sciences out there. It’s the ultimate game of needles in haystacks.”

Despite consulting with many of its critics, the FBI reiterated its position on Wednesday, with State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke insisting that “the North Korean government is responsible for this attack. And we stand by that conclusion.”

The most obvious lesson to learn from this revelation is that the apparatus of America’s security state should always be challengednot only in terms of its respect for civil liberties (see Edward Snowden and the NSA) or human rights (see the Senate torture report), but also in terms of its basic competence (see the misleading intelligence about WMDs in Iraq). It’s easy to view the government as an omnipotent institution, but it is capable of errors in logical as well as moral judgment. Even if North Korea actually was partially involved, the fact that such serious holes exist in the FBI’s argument is sufficient grounds for maintaining an attitude of skepticism.

Even if North Korea didn’t hack into Sony, though, they undeniably threatened the United States with violence should the film be releasedwhich was still an assault on our culture of free speech. When faced with this challenge,the public immediately became intensely interested in the film. “North Korea will find that their bullying edict will haunt them,” wrote Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian. “The Interview will become a global must-see and their Soviet-style control-freak instincts will look silly and culpable.” “Censorship is not effective because it stokes people’s innate curiosity,” echoed Liam Butler of Gizmodo, adding that “it’s the kind of publicity money can’t buy. PR people would sell both their kidneys to have this kind of reach.”

According to a poll by CNN/ORC, more than six out of 10 Americans disagreed with the initial decision to cancel The Interview’s theatrical release. Once Sony decided to release the film online and through independent theaters, the public response was instructive. The small arthouse cinemas willing to screen the film reported $2.8 million in revenue for The Interview over the Christmas weekend, averaging out to a modest $8,580 per location—not necessarily great business for those theaters, but enough for Wall Street to argue that theatrical distribution can withstand the challenge of online viewership.

Of course, business was even more gangbusters digitally, breaking records by earning $15 million online. Although this still added up to less than half of the film’s $44 million budget, the implications about the public’s interest after North Korea’s threats (regardless of its role in the attack) are clear. “Experts say that if the film just premiered at the box office like normal,” observed Paul Tassi in Forbes magazine, “it may have made its budget back in the first weekend alone.”

It’s important to note that this isn’t the first time a large corporation has had the opportunity to learn this lesson. Four years after violence erupted among Muslim protesters opposing a Danish cartoonist’s decision to illustrate the image of Muhammad (which many find offensive), Comedy Central was faced with a similar possibility after a fringe New York group called Revolution Muslim warned Trey Parker and Matt Stone that they were risking their lives by preparing to animate their prophet in “201,” an upcoming episode of their hit TV show South Park. In the end the network edited out Muhammad’s image with black bars and bleeped much of the dialogue, including an oddly prescient speech.

There are important differences between “201” and The Interview, foremost among them that Comedy Central was able to have its cake and eat it, too. After all, by the time the public knew it had censored the episode (which they didn’t reveal until it was actually airing), the network had already garnered outstanding ratings due to the general curiosity aroused by such a high profile incident of a collision between politics and pop culture. Just as John Nolte of Breitbart wrote in his defense of Sony and the major theater chains that “if one person were hurt or killed Christmas Day in any kind of terror attack, the financial liability would be incalculable,” so too did Comedy Center have valid cause for concern that its employees could have a case against them if Revolution Muslim or another radical Islamist made good on their threats (especially in light of the Danish controversy). Comedy Central, however, had an option that allowed them to maximize their ability to profit off “201” while still curtailing free speech to protect them legally—an option that wasn’t as readily available to Sony.

At the same time, Sony and the theater chains still made serious financial mistakes in its handling of The Interview debacle. Aside from placing more weight on the possibility of being sued than on the lucrative PR their product had acquired, they also bungled the online distribution in ways that limited its profitability. As Ian Morris from Forbes explained, Sony’s decision to prevent Internet users from legally downloading the film, charge $6 for online rental, and blocking the film from being watched in English-speaking countries outside the U.S. and Canada drove many views to torrent sites. “What The Interview had was more buzz about it than almost any other film this year,” he concluded, placing ultimate responsibility for Sony’s failure to effectively monetize the film online on their shoulders by scathingly observing that “if you can’t turn press like that into a global frenzy of rentals, then you’re missing a trick.”

In an article republished by the American Psychological Association, Dr. Heejung S. Kim observed that Americans’ tremendous emphasis on civil liberties has a marked effect on our overall ethos. “Speech enjoys a special privilege in these cultural contexts,” she writes, “and the freedom of speech is one of the most important rights of individuals in the U.S.” International law professor Noah Feldman of Harvard University elaborated on this in a 2012 interview with NPR that explained how foreign countries often misunderstand our cultural priorities here. “In the U.S., we value the liberty of the speaker much more highly than either the dignity of the person who feels insulted or the state’s interest in trying to avoid violent protest,” he explained. “What’s most distinctive from our perspective is that we think that if your feelings are hurt, then that’s your problem. We don’t believe that you ought to be protected from the hurly-burly of political insult. And that’s a very deeply ingrained American notion.”

It’s a notion that companies doing business in America would be well-advised to learn from in the future as a result of this incident, even as the principle of consumers being attracted to forbidden fruit applies to everyone in the world who followed this story. As the fallout from North Korea’s threats and (likely erroneously) perceived responsibility for the Sony hacking has made clear, there was a lot of money to be made from The Interview after it became a point of controversy. Whether the next confrontation over free speech comes from a band of militant Islamists or a despotic government, the fiscal bottom line will hopefully remain clear to its potential beneficiaries.

Photo via Sony/YouTube

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