Obama: Sony "Made a Mistake" Canceling 'The Interview' Release

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The president also stated that the U.S. would be responding to North Korea, although he did not further elaborate on those plans

Just hours after the FBI confirmed that North Korea was behind the devastating cyberattack on Sony, President Barack Obama said at his end-of-the-year press conference that he thought Sony made a mistake in canceling the release of The Interview. The president also stated that the U.S. would be responding to North Korea, although he did not further elaborate on those plans.

"Sony is a corporation; it suffered significant damage. There were threats against its employees. I am sympathetic to the concerns that they faced. Having said all that, yes, I think they made a mistake," the president said.

"In this interconnected digital world, there are going to be opportunities for hackers to engage in cyber assaults, both in the private sector and in the public sector. Now, our first order of business is making sure we do everything we can to harden sites and prevent those kinds of attacks from taking place," Obama said. 

At another point, he also said he wished the studio would've "spoken to me first. I would have told them do not get into a pattern in which you are intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks."

On Wednesday, Sony Pictures canceled the release of The Interview after five major U.S. theater circuits shelved plans to screen the Seth Rogen and James Franco film, which was set for a Dec. 25 debut. 

Read more Sony Hack: FBI Confirms North Korea Is "Responsible for These Actions"

"We cannot have a society in which a dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States. Because if someone is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary they don't like, or news reports they don't like," the president said. "Or even worse, imagine if producers and distributors and others start engaging in self-censorship because they don't want to offend the sensibilities of somebody whose sensibilities probably need to be offended."

"Imagine if, instead of being a cyber threat, someone had broken into their offices and destroyed a bunch of computers and stolen discs," Obama posited. "Is that what it takes for you to suddenly pull the plug on something?"

In a Friday statement, the FBI confirmed that North Korea was behind the attack. "As a result of our investigation, and in close collaboration with other U.S. Government departments and agencies, the FBI now has enough information to conclude that the North Korean government is responsible for these actions," the agency said in a statement.

MPAA CEO Chris Dodd followed the FBI confirmation with a statement deeming the hack "a despicable, criminal act." The MPAA exec also added: "The Internet is a powerful force for good and it is deplorable that it is being used as a weapon not just by common criminals, but also, sophisticated cyber terrorists. We cannot allow that front to be opened again on American corporations or the American people."

In the press conference on Friday, the president also singled out the stars of the Sony assassination comedy. "I think it says something interesting about North Korea that they decided to have the state mount an all-out assault on a movie studio because of a satirical movie starring Seth Rogen and James Flacco (Franco)," Obama said, prompting laughter from the press corps. "I love Seth and I love James, but the notion that that was a threat to them I think gives you some sense of the kind of regime we’re talking about here."

He added: "They caused a lot of damage, and we will respond. We will respond proportionally, and we’ll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose. It’s not something that I will announce here today at a press conference."

A full transcript below:

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. I’ll start on North Korea -- that seems to be the biggest topic today. What does a proportional response look like to the Sony hack? And did Sony make the right decision in pulling the movie? Or does that set a dangerous precedent when faced with this kind of situation?

OBAMA: Well, let me address the second question first. Sony is a corporation. It suffered significant damage. There were threats against its employees. I am sympathetic to the concerns that they faced. Having said all that, yes, I think they made a mistake.

In this interconnected, digital world, there are going to be opportunities for hackers to engage in cyber assaults both in the private sector and the public sector. Now, our first order of business is making sure that we do everything to harden sites and prevent those kinds of attacks from taking place. When I came into office, I stood up a cybersecurity interagency team to look at everything that we could at the government level to prevent these kinds of attacks. We’ve been coordinating with the private sector, but a lot more needs to be done. We’re not even close to where we need to be.

And one of the things in the New Year that I hope Congress is prepared to work with us on is strong cybersecurity laws that allow for information-sharing across private sector platforms, as well as the public sector, so that we are incorporating best practices and preventing these attacks from happening in the first place.

But even as we get better, the hackers are going to get better, too. Some of them are going to be state actors; some of them are going to be non-state actors. All of them are going to be sophisticated and many of them can do some damage.

We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States. Because if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary that they don’t like, or news reports that they don’t like. Or even worse, imagine if producers and distributors and others start engaging in self-censorship because they don’t want to offend the sensibilities of somebody whose sensibilities probably need to be offended.

So that’s not who we are. That’s not what America is about. Again, I’m sympathetic that Sony as a private company was worried about liabilities, and this and that and the other. I wish they had spoken to me first. I would have told them, do not get into a pattern in which you’re intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks. Imagine if, instead of it being a cyber-threat, somebody had broken into their offices and destroyed a bunch of computers and stolen disks. Is that what it takes for suddenly you to pull the plug on something?

So we’ll engage with not just the film industry, but the news industry and the private sector around these issues. We already have. We will continue to do so. But I think all of us have to anticipate occasionally there are going to be breaches like this. They’re going to be costly. They’re going to be serious. We take them with the utmost seriousness. But we can’t start changing our patterns of behavior any more than we stop going to a football game because there might be the possibility of a terrorist attack; any more than Boston didn’t run its marathon this year because of the possibility that somebody might try to cause harm. So let’s not get into that way of doing business.

QUESTION: Can you just say what the response would be to this attack? Would you consider taking some sort of symbolic step like watching the movie yourself or doing some sort of screening here?

OBAMA: I’ve got a long list of movies I’m going to be watching. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Will this be one of them?

OBAMA: I never release my full movie list.

But let’s talk of the specifics of what we now know. The FBI announced today and we can confirm that North Korea engaged in this attack. I think it says something interesting about North Korea that they decided to have the state mount an all-out assault on a movie studio because of a satirical movie starring Seth Rogen and James Flacco [Franco]. (Laughter.) I love Seth and I love James, but the notion that that was a threat to them I think gives you some sense of the kind of regime we’re talking about here.

They caused a lot of damage, and we will respond. We will respond proportionally, and we’ll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose. It’s not something that I will announce here today at a press conference.

More broadly, though, this points to the need for us to work with the international community to start setting up some very clear rules of the road in terms of how the Internet and cyber operates. Right now, it’s sort of the Wild West. And part of the problem is, is you’ve got weak states that can engage in these kinds of attacks, you’ve got non-state actors that can do enormous damage. That’s part of what makes this issue of cybersecurity so urgent.

Again, this is part of the reason why it’s going to be so important for Congress to work with us and get a actual bill passed that allows for the kind of information-sharing we need. Because if we don’t put in place the kind of architecture that can prevent these attacks from taking place, this is not just going to be affecting movies, this is going to be affecting our entire economy in ways that are extraordinarily significant.

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