Seth Rogen and James Franco give every indication of being in life something very much like the loveable dopes they play in the movies, and that they should be central figures in a matter of international importance is unlikely indeed. But that is nonetheless where we find ourselves: Hackers working on behalf of the regime of Kim Jong-un, the third-generation dictator of North Korea, stole a trove of documents from Sony Pictures and released them to the public to punish the entertainment concern for commissioning The Interview, a Rogen-Franco comedy in which a celebrity journalist secures an interview with Kim and is tasked by the CIA with assassinating him.
Subsequent terrorist threats — that theaters showing the film would be attacked — have persuaded many cinema operators to refuse to show the film, and Sony has canceled the film’s theatrical release, though bits of it already have turned up on the Internet. Spokesmen for the Kim regime, who do not as a rule have much of a sense of humor, have called the comedy “an act of terrorism” and threatened “merciless” retaliation.
Sony et al. should not have knuckled under to the demands of terrorists, but options remain: The most obvious course of action is for Sony to make the film widely available online through services such as iTunes and Netflix. If that proves impossible, then Sony should go ahead and write off the ticket sales, the loss of which it already is contemplating, and simply post the film online in its entirety at any of the many sites hosting user-generated content. Some hosts may take it down in response to threats, but once it is out there it will be out there forever. Sony will lose some money that it probably is going to lose in any case, but it will establish a desirable precedent.
On the subject of precedents, the news media have established a poisonous standard in this matter. The occasions upon which we find ourselves in agreement with the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin are rare, but he is correct in arguing that news media mining stolen e-mails for their gossip columns are “giving material aid to criminals,” specifically to terrorists working in the service of a Stalinist prison state notorious for having reduced its people to occasional bouts of cannibalism. That is a high price to pay for a couple of column inches about a studio chief characterizing Angelina Jolie as a “spoiled brat.” It has been a shameful spectacle. The media here are trafficking in stolen property in furtherance of a propaganda project undertaken by a dictatorship almost unique in its repressiveness. There are times when publishing such information serves a legitimate public interest; it is very difficult to take seriously the proposition that this is one of them.
Public and private institutions both require a general hardening of their information infrastructures, and this presents technical challenges that are new and unfamiliar. But even in this brave new world, some things never change: Giving in to terrorism only invites more terrorism, even the most walled off of dictatorships cannot be ignored away, and free societies can defend themselves and their institutions only when they have the courage of the conviction that doing so is worthwhile.