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Why we're reporting on Sony's leaked info

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A note from the entertainment editor

Sean O'Kane

Today on The Verge we published a story about a major operation by the MPAA to broadly and significantly impact the distribution of information, which would impact how free speech works on the internet. We obtained this information from a massive hack whose prime objective was to punish a US studio for exercising its free speech rights. The irony is not lost on us.

The Sony leak is a story that lands at the intersection of tech, business, and entertainment; in other words, right in The Verge's wheelhouse. (I was brought on as the site's first dedicated entertainment editor last month.) But we missed some of the first big stories to come out of the Sony leaks, and if that goes down in our history as a loss, then as an editor I take at least partial responsibility. When the news broke that terabytes of personal data of the employees of a corporation was now available for public consumption, my initial reaction was not, "Oh rad, let's see if we can get our hands on that James Bond script." It was alarm at the severity and purported intention of the act, and the slow horror of realizing that this was the "cyber Pearl Harbor" Leon Panetta had been waiting for, except instead of the Pentagon or the CIA, it targeted an entertainment company.

Maybe this was overly precious and hand-wringy of me, but I felt that if this hack was indeed carried out by the North Korean government or their sympathizers (which, it should be emphasized, has not been confirmed, but seems the only operable conclusion from what we know so far), the data released by this hack should be considered tainted by its provenance. Not factually, but ethically. Information does not have feelings or agendas, but the people who grant us access to it often do. And by all appearances, the attack on Sony was intended as a knife in the heart of free speech. Which was why part of me was surprised — not shocked, but surprised — at how eager the media was to twist it in.

Information does not have feelings or agendas, but the people who grant us access to it often do

The dominant internet-age school of thought — which I generally agree with — is that once information is public it becomes neutral. If someone accidentally leaves an iPhone prototype in a bar and someone else sells it to a blog, that's the chaos of doing business and part of the collateral of having a product with that level of aura and demand. If an industry reporter overhears a studio chair at Starbucks talking about how she can't get Leonardo DiCaprio to be in her movie, the dissemination of that information is the consequence of her sloppiness in protecting it. Embargoes, trade secrets, and NDAs are fundamentally unnatural, yet frequently useful ways to control a flow of information that would otherwise be instant and aimless. All it takes is a little human error to break that dam, further proof that it's a construct.

And yet, if I was feeling extra curmudgeonly, I'd say "instant and aimless" is good way to describe much of the feeding frenzy that broke out in the wake of the hack. I cover the entertainment industry for a living, but the net value of what was coming out of Sony wasn't immediately apparent to me — precisely because of where it came from. If an early draft of a script is leaked by a disgruntled employee and has been picked up by every major entertainment news outlet, fine, let's run it. Chaos reigns. It's fallout from an internal spat and everyone gets clicks and obtains previously concealed information about a product that they may or may not care about. But is it really worth doing North Korea's legwork for some tidbit about a fictional narrative film about Steve Jobs? Is movie news so important and life-enhancing? I am asking this as a person who really, really likes movies. (It's worth a reminder that nobody behind this hack cares about Spider-Man scoops or the fate of the next Aaron Sorkin film. They cared about doing as much damage as possible to a group of people, the large majority of whom are not rich or famous or Aaron Sorkin.)

We ended up aggregating a lot and breaking a few of these stories anyway, in an unspoken, admittedly not terribly well-examined agreement that the floodgates had already been opened. The inciting event was further and further in the rearview. But the question was on everyone's minds the further we delved into the leak: what's the difference between being the first to publish information from the leak and merely reposting it? The contents of the leak are already public; they're just not in a very user-friendly format until a news outlet decides to amplify a piece of it. Which means, one could argue, that the press is merely drawing lines of best fit through a dataset. It could also mean that the press is essentially finishing what the hackers started.

Does the value of what we have learned outweigh how we learned it?

Embargoes, trade secrets, and NDAs are also a way for corporations to weave a PR spell, to convince the public that their products are magical and mysterious, and therefore more valuable. Part of the argument for releasing the more heated correspondence from Amy Pascal's inbox is that it gives us a glimpse of how a major studio works and the revelation that it's frequently a shitshow (how ‘bout them PowerPoints?) makes us all more clear-eyed, informed consumers. I don't disagree with this notion. But up until yesterday, all racism, misogyny, and general unpleasantness aside, I wasn't convinced that anyone at Sony was ever trying to do anything other than get some movies produced and make a lot of money. They certainly weren't engaging in subprime lending or "enhanced interrogation." They weren't spying on civilians. They weren't trying to infringe on our basic rights. Right?

That brings us to today's report. Because as we've combed through this hack — fully aware, by the way, that dozens of other reporters in New York and Los Angeles are sifting through the same data that we are — we've been weighing each potential story against where it came from. Studio notes on Chappie: worth it? The script for Underworld 5: worth it? The revelation that Sony and the MPAA are engaged in a years-long secret campaign to essentially resurrect SOPA, this time with better PR: worth it?

On that last one, ultimately, yeah, I think so. It's not a matter of whether Sony now "deserves" to be cyberterrorized or not, but rather whether the value of what we have learned outweighs how we learned it. We decided that it was important for you to know how the MPAA plans to influence how you experience the internet, and by extension, how they intend to shape the future of the information marketplace; we could all agree that it had more impact on our world and our lives than top-secret internal intelligence that Scott Rudin is a meanie.

So this is the horse we've chosen in this race, and the editorial staff at The Verge stands by our decision to invest our energy in this story as researched and reported by Russell Brandom, Ross Miller, and Bryan Bishop. We think it's valuable to our readers and anyone who plans to spend any time on the internet in the future. We are all also very aware that had we waited a couple more hours, it would probably no longer be our horse.

We'd reblog it, though. Chaos reigns.