Friday, December 26, 2014

Sorry, Freedom is Not Available in Your Country

After hearing for weeks about how the "terrorists" or North Koreans were winning the war against and for freedom, due to the decision of Sony not to distribute the film "The Interview," the company has decided to release the film on a limited basis. It can be streamed online and can be bought. Eventually it may be released through iTunes. It was interesting to see how a film which most people would probably not want to watch because of the abundance of jokes dealing with human genitalia, becomes an artifact over which freedom not on a national scale, but an international scale is fought. Screenings of The Interview have been filled with patriotic discourse and singing, in order to make that important argument that, this may be crap and it may be garbage, but I should have the right to eat crap and copulate with garbage if  I want to!

Speaking of freedom, people in Guam attempting to watch the Interview online soon found that they were prevented by most sites from doing so. The reason? The usual prohibition that Guam is foreign and therefore can't watch things meant for the US (or for countries that have negotiated agreements with the US or its companies). As I've often argued, this is the way that most people on Guam experience colonialism today, as this weird sort of exclusion. It is tied to a larger fundamental exclusion and disenfranchisement, but they connect it to problems with buying things online, being made fun of in movies, and these moments were suddenly when you live and who you are for some reason doesn't count when America is formed as a nation. It is something that you can call a mistake, something that can be "fixed," but when you think about it, that is the problem with such feelings of inclusion, they shouldn't require asterisks, exceptions or excuses.

Here are some articles about The Interview, because I haven't been able to watch it yet.

Did North Korea Really Attack Sony?

It's too early to take the U.S. government at its word.

I am deeply skeptical of the FBI's announcement on Friday that North Korea was behind last month's Sony hack. The agency's evidence is tenuous, and I have a hard time believing it. But I also have trouble believing that the U.S. government would make the accusation this formally if officials didn't believe it.
Clues in the hackers' attack code seem to point in all directions at once. The FBI points to reused code from previous attacks associated with North Korea, as well as similarities in the networks used to launch the attacks. Korean language in the code also suggests a Korean origin, though not necessarily a North Korean one since North Koreans use a unique dialect. However you read it, this sort of evidence is circumstantial at best. It's easy to fake, and it's even easier to interpret it wrong. In general, it's a situation that rapidly devolves into storytelling, where analysts pick bits and pieces of the "evidence" to suit the narrative they already have worked out in their heads.
In reality, there are several possibilities to consider:
  • This is the work of independent North Korean nationals. Many politically motivated hacking incidents in the past have not been government-controlled. There's nothing special or sophisticated about this hack that would indicate a government operation. In fact, reusing old attack code is a sign of a more conventional hacker being behind this.
  • This is the work of hackers who had no idea that there was a North Korean connection to Sony until they read about it in the media. Sony, after all, is a company that hackers have loved to hate for a decade. The most compelling evidence for this scenario is that the explicit North Korean connection—threats about the movie The Interview—were only made by the hackers after the media picked up on the possible links between the film release and the cyberattack. There is still the very real possibility that the hackers are in it just for the lulz, and that this international geopolitical angle simply makes the whole thing funnier.
  • It could have been an insider—Sony's Snowden—who orchestrated the breach. I doubt this theory, because an insider wouldn't need all the hacker tools that were used. I've also seen speculation that the culprit was a disgruntled ex-employee. It's possible, but that employee or ex-employee would have also had to possess the requisite hacking skills, which seems unlikely.
  • The initial attack was not a North Korean government operation, but was co-opted by the government. There's no reason to believe that the hackers who initially stole the information from Sony are the same ones who threatened the company over the movie. Maybe there are several attackers working independently. Maybe the independent North Korean hackers turned their work over to the government when the job got too big to handle. Maybe the North Koreans hacked the hackers.
I'm sure there are other possibilities that I haven't thought of, and it wouldn't surprise me if what's really going on isn't even on my list. North Korea's offer to help with the investigation doesn't clear matters up at all.

Tellingly, the FBI's press release says that the bureau's conclusion is only based "in part" on these clues. This leaves open the possibility that the government has classified evidence that North Korea is behind the attack. The NSA has been trying to eavesdrop on North Korea's government communications since the Korean War, and it's reasonable to assume that its analysts are in pretty deep. The agency might have intelligence on the planning process for the hack. It might, say, have phone calls discussing the project, weekly PowerPoint status reports, or even Kim Jong Un's sign-off on the plan.

On the other hand, maybe not. I could have written the same thing about Iraq's weapons-of-mass-destruction program in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of that country, and we all know how wrong the government was about that.

Allan Friedman, a research scientist at George Washington University's Cyber Security Policy Research Institute, told me that from a diplomatic perspective, it's a smart strategy for the U.S. to be overconfident in assigning blame for the cyberattacks. Beyond the politics of this particular attack, the long-term U.S. interest is to discourage other nations from engaging in similar behavior. If the North Korean government continues denying its involvement no matter what the truth is, and the real attackers have gone underground, then the U.S. decision to claim omnipotent powers of attribution serves as a warning to others that they will get caught if they try something like this.

Sony also has a vested interest in the hack being the work of North Korea. The company is going to be on the receiving end of a dozen or more lawsuits—from employees, ex-employees, investors, partners, and so on. Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain opined that having this attack characterized as an act of terrorism or war, or the work of a foreign power, might earn the company some degree of immunity from these lawsuits.

I worry that this case echoes the "we have evidence—trust us" story that the Bush administration told in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Identifying the origin of a cyberattack is very difficult, and when it is possible the process of attributing responsibility can take months. While I am confident that there will be no U.S. military retribution because of this, I think the best response is to calm down and be skeptical of tidy explanations until more is known.

Sony streams 'The Interview' online and makes Hollywood history

December 24, 2014: 4:19 PM ET

A bit of Hollywood history unfolded on Wednesday. And it might be a glimpse into the future.

The controversial Sony Pictures comedy "The Interview" was released on YouTube, Google Play, the Microsoft Xbox video game console, and a special Web site.
The movie, which started streaming online around 1 p.m. ET, costs $5.99 to rent and $14.99 to buy.
So it is having historic simultaneous release in both living rooms and, come Christmas Day, about 300 independently-owned theaters across the United States.

Sony announced the digital release just an hour ahead of time, after CNNMoney and other news organizations began to report on the studio's plans to distribute "The Interview" through YouTube's movie rental store. Word spread via social media, and some curious fans started watching -- and live-tweeting -- the movie right at 1 p.m.

Sony's extraordinary announcement encapsulated days of sometimes desperate negotiations between the studio and a number of potential Internet distribution partners.

Related: You won't get hacked streaming 'The Interview' online
There was a plan at one point to allow rentals through Apple's iTunes store, but it fell apart, according to two sources with knowledge of the matter. An iTunes release could re-materialize sometime after Christmas.

Sony (SNE) could also cut a deal with a subscription streaming site like Netflix (NFLX, Tech30), enabling wider access to the movie sometime after Christmas.

But at the moment, it's up on YouTube and generating an enormous amount of free publicity for the embattled movie studio, which fell victim to a cyberattack late last month.

A Sony representative said the company would not be releasing any immediate data about the number of rentals or sales.

A groundbreaking moment for the American movie industry
The online release is groundbreaking -- but also awfully contentious. Owners of major theater chains have steadfastly opposed proposals for simultaneous physical and digital releases, a concept known in the industry as a same-day-and-date release.

It's been tried, with varying success, for some documentaries and niche dramas, but never for a big, broad comedy like "The Interview," which was originally meant to premiere on 2,000 to 3,000 screens.

But extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary movie release strategies. This time last week, after hackers -- apparently objecting to the content of "The Interview" -- threatened American moviegoers, Sony canceled the movie's release.

Related: What we know now about the Sony Hack
Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton told CNN's Fareed Zakaria that he had no choice because "the movie theaters came to us, one by one, over the course of a very short period of time ... and announced that they would not carry the movie."

Some of the theater chains dispute that. But one thing is clear: that same day, December 17, Sony contacted Google (GOOGL, Tech30), Microsoft (MSFT, Tech30) and other potential online distributors.

"We never stopped pursuing as wide a release as possible for 'The Interview,'" Lynton said in a statement on Wednesday. "It was essential for our studio to release this movie, especially given the assault upon our business and our employees by those who wanted to stop free speech."

He added, "We chose the path of digital distribution first so as to reach as many people as possible on opening day, and we continue to seek other partners and platforms to further expand the release."
One of the platforms is a dedicated site,, done in partnership with Kernel and secure payments system Stripe. But that site appeared to be overwhelmed by traffic shortly after 1 p.m. ET. Kernel acknowledged "tremendous demand" but said the streams were "free flowing" by 2 p.m.

Google's streams appeared to be more stable.

Google senior vice president David Drummond wrote in a blog post that "security implications were very much at the front of our minds" when Sony contacted the company last week.

"After discussing all the issues, Sony and Google agreed that we could not sit on the sidelines and allow a handful of people to determine the limits of free speech in another country (however silly the content might be)," he wrote.

Next stop for 'The Interview:' indie theaters
As for the physical release on Thursday, the studio's list of participating theaters includes about 300 that will start showing it on Christmas and dozens of others that will start showing it on January 1 or January 2. Some of the Christmas Day screenings are already sold out.

"With what looks like a seriously limited release, limited supply is yielding substantial demand," the fan web site Moviepilot said.

For Sony's partners, the digital release of the movie is an opportunity to show off technological and commercial prowess.

YouTube, for instance, has a two-year-old movie rental system that many of its users don't know about; "The Interview" is chance to gain attention for it.

The movie, oddly enough, became a political and geopolitical symbol. It is about an assassination plot against the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. And it is widely believed that Sony Pictures suffered a cyberattack last month partly due to North Korea's fury over the movie.

Backlash to Sony's original cancellation decision was fierce, including from President Obama, who said the movie studio had made a mistake.

Since then, Sony executives have stayed in close touch with White House officials, appraising them of the studio's efforts to seek distribution. And on Wednesday, administration officials signaled that they were pleased with the theatrical and digital plans.

Shortly after 1 p.m., the White House responded to reporters' inquiries with a statement: "The President welcomes the news that people will be able to decide for themselves whether or not to see this film, and appreciates Sony's work on this effort over the past few weeks."

The statement added, "With today's announcements, people can now make their own choices about the film, and that's how it should be."

Related: Dennis Rodman on 'The Interview': Watch my movie
Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus concurred. In a followup to his Saturday message calling on theater owners to support the movie, he said the renewed Christmas release "was the right decision."

Priebus added, "Anything else would set a horrible precedent and allow our freedom to be ceded to the whims of a totalitarian regime."

--CNN's Pamela Brown and Michelle Kosinski contributed reporting


"The Interview, Painfully Bad"
David Edmund Moody
The Huffington Post

It's tempting to try to find something complimentary to say about The Interview. Surely any film that draws attention in any manner to the horrors of life in North Korea can't be all bad, right? Well, unfortunately, even such a film can indeed be all bad, and The Interview amply proves that point.
It's hard to know where to begin in cataloguing the painful parameters of this film, but perhaps its infantile fascination with all things anal would be one place to start. Rectal references occur on the order of once or twice every five minutes, sometimes supplemented with plot devices designed to focus attention on the anal orifice for sustained periods of time.

No movie of this caliber would be complete without copious gratuitous references to genitalia, and to various sex acts, replete with explicit visual depictions of barely-clothed erections, clearly intended for shock value only. Adolescent vulgarity of this variety is probably intended for a mentality on the order of freshmen in a backwater college fraternity, but any other viewer must either abdicate all standards of taste or else wonder why a movie of this kind is successful with a broader audience.
The question remains why a film that traffics in the ultimate in tastelessness and vulgarity tied its ugly tether to the dictatorship in North Korea. One would like to believe that such a connection was animated by some sensitivity to the realities of that regime, rather than callously exploiting those realities for narrow comedic purposes. The Interview, however, goes well out of its way to make sure that no loftier motives can be ascribed to it. North Korea, in this film, is nothing more than a foil for the purpose of introducing ever more lurid scatological and sexual material.

Having introduced the matter of North Korea, however, the film unfortunately does require some attention, if only to disabuse prospective viewers of any hope that it has any redeeming value. Notwithstanding the protections provided by the First Amendment, there is a valid question whether the assassination of any living head of state, no matter how heinous the individual or his regime, is suitable subject matter for a major studio motion picture. If one objects on moral grounds to any such depiction, it's hard to know where to direct one's concern. The Sony Corporation, not to mention the stars and originators of this film, are surely impervious to any objections raised from any quarter, even if Sony withheld release of the film for a few days in order to placate Kim Jung Un himself.
Finally, one can only wonder if there is any limit to the coarsening of culture and public discourse. Seth Rogen and his ilk exhibit a genius in this direction, and no doubt are at work even now to find some way of exceeding their accomplishments of this kind. If our commercial forms of entertainment lavishly reward such endeavors, The Interview represents a mirror in which we can, perhaps, see ourselves. But if, like the winter solstice on which it was released, this film represents the darkest night of our culture, we can at least take solace in the thought that only brighter days must lie ahead.


 "Audiences 'Let Freedom Ring' at The Interview premiere in New York City.
Stephanie Marcus
Huffington Post

"The Interview" probably should have been called "The Honey Pot."

It's a term and idea frequently referenced in the Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg co-directed film, in which Rogen's character explains, "It's an attractive spy woman who lures men into doing shit they're not supposed to do."

At the 10 a.m. Christmas Day screening of "The Interview" at Cinema Village -- the only theater currently showing the film in Manhattan -- it was hard not to feel like audiences had been honey-potted in some respect. In this case, they were lured into showing up with notions of protecting free speech and and the sexiness of sticking it to the hackers who, last week, dared to evoke the memory of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in their threats.

The idea that seeing "The Interview" in theaters was important or even patriotic was only amplified by the scene in and around Cinema Village. Many media members (myself included) pounced on moviegoers as they purchased tickets. Inside, theater manager Lee Peterson introduced the comedy by quoting "My Country, 'Tis of Thee."

"Let freedom ring," Peterson said to the crowd of around 100 people. "No one can tell us what we can or can't see. So enjoy the film."

It's a seductive narrative, mostly because people don't like being told they can't see something --especially by hackers that may or may not be working for a brutal dictatorship in North Korea. It's likely one of the reasons that all of Cinema Village's afternoon screenings are sold out -- even after Sony made the film available to stream online for half the price of a theater ticket.

It's all this buzz surrounding the movie, and Sony's flip flop on releasing the film, that was what brought Jacqueline and Anthony Goodling to the movie theater.

"I wanted to come down here and see all the hype around something," said Anthony Goodling. "But, in reality, it's a movie, and for everyone to blow it out of proportion like they did, I just think it's going to be really good and really funny."

Jacqueline, his wife, added that they didn't have any plans to see "The Interview" before Sony pulled it from theaters last week, but decided to after it became an issue of free speech.

Other theatergoers, such as Karen Shea and her husband, planned to see the film all along, but admitted they came out today due to "curiosity" and due to the "novelty" of Sony briefly pulling it from theaters.

The movie itself is everything you'd expect from a movie starring Seth Rogen and James Franco --dick jokes, fart jokes, celebrity cameos and even the delightful integration of language from the Internet's favorite Deranged Sorority Girl Email. It's not exactly ground-breaking stuff, but audiences are at least now able to make the choice to see those dick and fart jokes for themselves.

"We live in an area where we have freedom of speech, and can see anything as far as movies and media," Jacqueline Goodling said. "And this was shut down for a period of time, just because of the hacking and because of the fear that we had. That's not what we're about."

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