The Interview and censorship in the online age

Posted by David Murton on Tue, Dec 23, 2014 @ 06:00 AM


Censorship is dead. In the past this statement may have been inaccurate, but in today's ever-connected online environment any form of censorship is nothing more than a stall. A momentary barricade that can be overcome by those who are happy to make the effort in doing so.

Sony's recent decision to indefinitely postpone the release of The Interview, a comedy centred around the story of two journalists hired to assassinate the leader of North Korea, has brought with it a very vocal fallout from many. It's a decision that even US President Barack Obama voiced his opinion on, stating that Sony had made the wrong decision. But regardless of Sony's decision, the question is whether it really matters in a world where censorship doesn't have the weight it once had.

It's important to remember that copies of the film exist, critics have already seen it and written reviews about it. In other words, if someone somehow gets their hands on a copy of the film, they can then upload it to a torrent site for all the world to download and watch. While Sony is still looking at the options available to them in releasing this film, if they ultimately decide to not release it, someone else will.


Previous failed censorship / bans

If you need examples of just how ineffective censoring or banning a certain piece of entertainment is, you don't have to look far. For years, Australia was without an R18+ rating for video games, and a number of video games were either censored or outright refused classification here. One example was Mortal Kombat 9, which was review in 2011 when the R18+ rating had not been put into effect. The game's level of violence was deemed to exceed what was permitted under an MA15+ rating, and was therefore refused classification. This, in turn, meant the game was illegal to sell in Australia.

In spite of the ban, people still managed to get their hands on the game by either importing it from countries where the game hadn't been banned (e.g. New Zealand, USA, UK, etc.) or by simply creating an American account on their PS3 and/or Xbox 360, and downloading the digital copy using American-specific PSN/Xbox Live Store gift cards. Once R18+ was introduced in 2013, the game's ban was lifted, but those who genuinely had wanted to play the game had already bypassed the ban two years prior.

A more sobering example pertains to a movie called A Serbian Film. It is considered so deeply offensive and disturbing that it has been banned in a large number of countries around the world and the film itself was investigated for potential criminal breaches. Australia is just one of the many countries to have refused the film classification. However, I've met people who have seen the film by simply downloading a torrent of it.


The internet is not a vacuum

The other key factor in the decreased power of censorship comes down to the fact that the internet is not a vacuum. When something is censored or banned, this fact doesn't simply 'disappear'. With global communication and the potential for anything to go viral, even if something is quietly censored, banned or temporarily held back from release, people will know. It's the exact same reason why if you're going to talk about the deeply personal highs and nadirs of your life on a public forum, then you best be ready to face the possibility of that information reaching more people than you originally intended.

In the case of Sony, the decision is very public, but things like social media help a public decision reach the masses far quicker than ever before. When more people know about something being held back from release, criticism follows - regardless of the circumstances that led to the decision. More and more people talk, and movements follow. These movements may bring The Interview into the online market in some form, regardless of whether Sony plays a hand in doing so.

In the end, the threats made by the hackers will not stop this film from coming out. It's believed Sony spent a total of $100 million on the film for both production and promotion. So chances are some type of official release will be decided on soon. But if not, there's a high chance The Interview will find its way online somehow, no matter the perceived risk.


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