Sony Hack Reveals Celebrity Gossip, Plot To Undermine Free And Open Internet

Zach Graves Digital Director and Tech Policy Fellow, R Street Institute"
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Hollywood media have feasted this month on  thousands of emails and internal documents leaked as part of a massive breach of Sony Pictures by the hacker group “Guardians of Peace.” The breach has led to a steady stream of stories revealing everything from celebrity name calling, to nepotism, to gender pay gaps, to the details of upcoming films.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin questioned the ethics of journalists who traffic in the stolen documents, arguing there could be nothing of public interest:

“Do the emails contain any information about Sony breaking the law? No. Misleading the public? No. Acting in direct harm to customers, the way the tobacco companies or Enron did? No.”

Well, that’s not entirely true. As The Verge revealed Friday, the leaked emails show a lot more than celebrity gossip. They uncover a massive underhanded scheme between Sony and the MPAA (as well as other content producers like Paramount, Warner Brothers, Fox, Comcast and the RIAA) to take down “Goliath” — a codename for Google and other search giants.

The plan wasn’t limited to search engines. The media giants actually aimed to resurrect principles of the notorious failed SOPA (Stop Online Privacy Act) legislation. While ostensibly intended to combat online piracy, in practice, the bill would grant content producers enormous new powers to block websites and exert control over the way search engines operate, at the expense of free speech, fair use and a free and open Internet (really, we have enough absurd takedown disputes as it is).

As part of a multi-pronged approach, the MPAA and cohorts cozied up with various state attorneys general (a strategy the New York Times recently covered) and lobbied them to go after their number one target: Google. According to the emails, they didn’t simply take AGs out to fancy dinners. They directly funded their investigations against Google to the tune of “$585,000 to $1.175 million” in legal and public relations support. This even included investigations that were totally unrelated to online piracy, presumably just for the sake of harassment. On top of this, they spend more than $100,000 toward generating “media stories based on” these actions (R Street President Eli Lehrer discusses the plan in The Weekly Standard).

All this comes after Google changed its search ranking algorithm in October to downrank sites thought to be promoting illicit content, something the content industry long had sought (although they reacted poorly to the news). But even before this change, as R Street’s Mytheos Holt recently pointed out, mainstream search engines weren’t where people went to find pirated content.

Not only do Google users search for “Katy Perry” more often than they do “Free Katy Perry MP3,” but they do so 200,000 times more often. While sites that host pirated content do get 16 percent of their traffic from search engines, that’s far below the 64 percent average for the Internet at large (for comparison, R Street’s website gets 68.5 percent of its traffic from search, the vast majority of which is from Google).

The attack on Sony was reprehensible. But while one can debate the ethics of unearthing embarrassing comments about celebrities from illegally purloined documents, there’s a clear public interest in talking about the content industry’s campaign to corrupt government officials and undermine the free speech rights of ordinary citizens.

Copyright policy has long been an arena dominated by special interests. Ultimately, we need to take a balanced approach to protect the interests of rights holders while still allowing elbow room for free expression. For some reform-minded policy ideas, check out R Street’s paper on restoring the constitutional purpose of copyright.