It could be cynically described as the most elaborate marketing campaign of the century. The Sony Pictures Entertainment hacking debacle never fails to draw attention or mystery; especially in this typically slow news season. Just who are the Guardians of Peace (GOP)? Is this hacking collective just playing on the Pyongyang government warning? The latest rumour is that this act of cyber theft or terrorism was an inside job. Given my geeky persuasion, you may now expect me to divulge into the technological aspects of this story. No. I have a bigger issue, one that a lot of us take for granted:
Freedom of speech.
Freedom of speech advocates were quick in criticising Sony Pictures’ initial decision to drop the release of “The Interview” after threats of violence. We can’t let such a great American corporation (even though it’s a subsidiary to a Japanese corporation) bow to the whims of a fanatical government, disavowing the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Putting President Barack Obama in a rather awkward position, to uphold these values, show strength in front of the tyrannical North Korea, but to take the potential act of terrorism seriously. Of course Prime Minister David Cameron’s official spokesperson added a rather wet:
“… Mr Cameron gave a “very high importance” to the principle of freedom of speech and said people should “never be shy” about defending it when asked about the announcement.” (Quoted from the Telegraph)
In stouter terms, Jimmy Kimmel described the event as:
“An un-American act of cowardice that validates terrorist actions and sets a terrifying precedent.” – @jimmykimmel.
In the midst of this quasi-articulate attack on Sony Pictures deployed by freedom of speech advocates, I couldn’t help but remember one of the best polemic books of 2013. “You can’t read this book” by controversial columnist Nick Cohen, which begins:
“Do you believe in freedom of speech?
Really, are you sure?
You may say you do. It’s the sort of thing that everyone says. Just as everyone says they have a sense of humour, especially when they don’t… In the late twentieth century states, courts, private companies and public bureaucracies confined information, their argument runs. If it spread beyond those with ‘a need to know’, the authorities of the nation state, whether a dictatorship or a democracy, could imprison or fine the leaker…
That manageable world has gone for good. If one person living in a court’s jurisdiction breaks an injunction, a judge can punish him. But how can a judge punish a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand on Twitter or Facebook?”
The book continues to say we have to assert the values of the Enlightenment; recognising a fine balance between freedom of information and freedom of speech. That in the US, corporate interests prevent public discussions that occur that may prove a challenge to a corporation’s power. In the case of North Korea, censoring the release of a film that questions the authority of their leader.
Whilst not known as a source of intellectual vigour (especially because of this article), the Metro did publish a comment in its paper (to paraphrase),
“North Korea threatens US due to the release of this comedy film, but how would Britain or America act if North Korea were to release their own comedy film?”
Its comedy film wars. I doubt ambassadors of the Western world would label this an act of terrorism, and I wonder how many freedom of speech advocates would hold the mantle here? We can’t just use the sacred term ‘freedom of speech’ to justify if we do or don’t take offence at something.
Because the reality is, none of us really have freedom of speech. It’s a point that Cohen asserts early in the book. On a daily basis all of us filter our thoughts for various reasons. Especially when it comes to the spread of information – if freedom of speech did exist then I could talk about some rather juicy city gossip without the risk of getting sued. Even the First Amendment has exceptions (such as religious violence and offences against children).
The new atheism movement that befell with the release of the God Delusion by Richard Dawkins based its strong arguments on the fact that scientific or philosophical enquiry should not be censored by the worry of offending the religious. We should protect those in danger, such as when Salmon Rushdie released the Satanic Verses.
What we should remember in this situation with Sony Pictures is that in this digital age, the spread of information has become coextensive with speech. Now individuals are acting through social media as their own publishing sources. This blog is a perfect example, as it sits as my online ‘personal printing press’. It doesn’t need to pump out useful public information – it could be full of untruths and scandal if I wanted. Yet some governments and corporations may see my act of publishing a blog post in the same light as an editor approving a Guardian news story.
Which, at its heart, lies the real mystery about the Sony Pictures attack. Even though North Korea has limited digital capabilities, the country has failed to recognise a cinema release of the film isn’t the only option. It’s likely Sony Pictures will release the film to be streamed online; which I believe will be a Hollywood first. That way the threat of violence will be drastically reduced as people watch the film in the safety of their own homes.
Freedom of speech advocates can target Sony Pictures for their (current) decision to withhold the film due to threats of violence. But the same advocates should also consider what freedom of speech really means. To say you “Can’t watch this film” isn’t such a big issue, when on a daily basis we are constantly having information filtered or blocked from us.
Perhaps ultimately, this isn’t about freedom of speech at all, instead just a means to sell a Hollywood blockbuster before the New Year.