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Workers remove a banner for "The Interview" from a billboard in Hollywood a day after Sony announced it was cancelling the movie's Christmas release.

Michael Thurston/AFP / Getty Images

It's no surprise that North Korea doesn't share Hollywood's sense of humour – is laughter even allowed in Kim Jong-un's self-glorying dictatorship?

But the unprecedented cyberattack and escalation of threats against Sony Pictures, which led the studio to cancel a farcical film about the assassination of North Korea's leader, is a worrying development in the growing power of state-sponsored hackers to compromise global security and corporate independence.

The Interview was the movie industry's idea of holiday humour, an unlikely comedy about the targeted killing of a living person – a man extravagantly revered in his own country, if only through brutal compulsion. The premise was bound to be problematic for anyone who viewed Canadian director/actor Seth Rogen's satire in geopolitical terms and not just as harmless fun for vacant minds at the local multiplex.

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North Korea called the movie "an act of war," and the subsequent infiltration of Sony's computer network has been linked by U.S. experts to government-sponsored hackers. Most recently, a threat was sent to Sony warning the company that, if it released the film, "the world would be full of fear." Movie-house chains, including Cineplex Entertainment in Canada, cancelled their bookings before Sony finally decided to kill the film.

Calculating risk in the shadowy world of cyberthreats is hardly a sure thing, and that's before you introduce the wild card of North Korea, a rogue state that has both the will and the weaponry to turn its Bond-villain caricature into reality. But as a Japanese-owned company, Sony is justified in viewing neighbouring North Korea as an instigator of bad behaviour rather than just as a figment of Hollywood fantasy.

A cyberattack on this scale rightly challenges our sense of security. But Sony's willingness to acknowledge the threat shouldn't be equated with artistic cowardice. Arguments for free speech don't exist in a peaceable void. They're contingent on the danger involved in continuing to promote a view that is provocative.

In the case of Mr. Rogen, whose expertise in gross-out slacker films may not have earned him the moral right to kill off living leaders in his movies, the artistic principle wasn't strong enough to sustain the fight against an opponent who could shut down the holiday-movie marketplace. Put more crassly, movie companies self-censor at the political level all the time – in this case Sony simply invoked its better judgment when it was too late.

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