HOLLYWOOD stars and political leaders have angrily described the decision to pull a film about the assassination of the North Korean leader as a defeat for free speech.
US investigators have said North Korea is behind the cyber attacks on Sony Pictures which led The Interview to be shelved.
Starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, it was due to be released in America on Christmas Day and come to the UK in February.
But hackers calling themselves Guardians of Peace threatened to launch attacks like the September 11 atrocities on cinemas that showed the film.
Sony Pictures said it was pulling the movie “in light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film”.
Some of Hollywood’s best known faces took to Twitter to oppose the decision - with Ben Stiller branding it “a threat to freedom of expression”.
Rob Lowe, who stared in the West Wing, said: “Wow. Everyone caved. The hackers won. An utter and complete victory for them. Wow.”
He compared the decision to pull the film to the former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement with Adolf Hitler.
He tweeted: “Saw @Sethrogen at JFK. Both of us have never seen or heard of anything like this. Hollywood has done Neville Chamberlain proud today.”
Comedian Jimmy Kimmel branded the move an “un-American act of cowardice that validates terrorist actions and sets a terrifying precedent”.
Oscar-wining screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who has already attacked the media for spreading information leaked by the hackers, said: “Today the US succumbed to an unprecedented attack on our most cherished, bedrock principle of free speech.”
US president Barack Obama described the cyber attack as “very serious”, adding: “We’ll be vigilant. If we see something that we think is serious and credible then we’ll alert the public.
“But for now, my recommendation would be that people go to the movies.”
Asked what David Cameron thought about Sony’s decision, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “I have not spoken to him about it directly, but I do know that he always puts a very high importance on the principle of freedom of speech.
“Is there a very important principle around freedom of speech that we should never be shy about defending? That is absolutely a view the Prime Minister has.”
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg criticised Sony’s decision to pull the film in response to the “online thugs”.
“It’s just extraordinary that in a free society we are allowing these online thugs from this police state to intimidate people,” he said on his LBC Radio phone-in.
The Liberal Democrat leader added: “We cannot allow them to basically intimidate cinema chains and stop audiences enjoying what is, by the sounds of it, a Christmas comedy film.”
He said Sony had “quite a heavy responsibility” and there was a “big issue of principle at stake”.
Mr Clegg said: “We can’t have police states, basically through hacking and online intimidation, stopping free societies like ours having films shown at the cinemas that we want to see.”
Former US speaker of the house of representatives Newt Gingrich described the hack as an “act of war” by terrorists and “almost certainly the North Korean dictatorship”.
He tweeted: “Sony should release The Interview online for free so North Koreans can’t censor American creativity--should have Korean language version.
“No one should kid themselves. With the Sony collapse America has lost its first cyberwar. This is a very very dangerous precedent.”
The attack was possibly the costliest yet for a US company, said Avivah Litan, a cyber-security analyst at research firm Gartner.
“This attack went to the heart and core of Sony’s business - and succeeded,” she said.
“We haven’t seen any attack like this in the annals of US breach history.”
News of the Sony hack first broke on November 24 after the image of a skull flashed on every Sony employee’s computer screen at the same time with the warning: “This is just the beginning, we’ve obtained all your internal data.”
Since then a series of highly damaging leaks have rocked the company, where phones and email services have been paralysed.
North Korea has denied orchestrating the cyber-attack but an unidentified spokesman for the North’s powerful National Defence Commission said the attack “might be a righteous deed of the supporters and sympathisers” of the North.
The chilling effect from the hack appeared to reach other film studios, with reports that a thriller set in North Korea and starring Steve Carell under development by New Regency has been scrapped.
Meanwhile, its effects also reached the app industry, with photo-sharing service Snapchat the latest firm to see secrets spilled.
Evan Spiegel, the chief executive and co-founder of the popular app, spoke of his anger after private details of Snapchat’s business plans were leaked online.
The details came as part of another wave of financial documents and emails leaked by Guardians of Peace.
Mr Spiegel sent a memo to Snapchat employees in the aftermath of the leak, saying he was “devastated” and “I felt like I was going to cry”.
“I’ve been feeling a lot of things since our business plans were made public last night. Definitely angry. Definitely devastated,” he said.
The cyber attack on Sony Pictures has seen a number of embarrassing leaks and revelations. This is the timeline of key events since the news of the hack first broke.
• November 24: News breaks that Sony Pictures has been hacked. Phones and e-mail services are paralysed, as are all computers. The first signs of the digital raid comes when the image of a skull flashes on every employee’s computer screen at the same time with the warning: “This is just the beginning, we’ve obtained all your internal data.” Sony is told to obey all the hacker’s demands or see the company’s “top secrets” released.
• November 28: First reports that Sony suspects North Korea is behind the attack in retaliation for The Interview, a comedy about a plot to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
• December 1: The pre-bonus salaries of 17 top Sony executives are leaked together with the salaries of more than 6,000 current and former Sony employees. The FBI confirms it has launched an investigation and Sony announces it has hired a cyber security firm to look into the attack.
• December 2: Sony chiefs Michael Lynton and Amy Pascal issue a company-wide alert to employees, warning them to “assume that information about you in the possession of the company might be in (the hacker’s) possession”.
• December 3: A cache of withering critiques of Adam Sandler movies reveals that Sony employees apparently think his films are “mundane” and “formulaic”.
• December 4: Cyber security experts say they have found striking similarities between the code used in the hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment and attacks blamed on North Korea which targeted South Korean companies and government agencies last year.
• December 5: It emerges that Sony kept thousands of company passwords in a folder called “passwords”. Roy Duckles, EMEA channel director at password management firm Lieberman Software Corporation said: “Putting all your passwords in a folder marked passwords is a very obvious mistake, the hackers must have thought it was Christmas when they found that file.”
• December 7: North Korea denies orchestrating the cyber-attack but an unidentified spokesman for the North’s powerful National Defence Commission said the attack “might be a righteous deed of the supporters and sympathisers” of the North.
• December 8: A group claiming to be responsible for the hack publishes a letter reportedly saying “stop immediately showing the movie of terrorism which can break the regional peace and cause the War!” Sony’s online PlayStation store is inaccessible to users for a short time. A hacker group calling itself Lizard Squad appeared to take responsibility for the attack on Twitter. There is no indication of a link between this and the Sony Pictures incidents.
• December 9: The FBI say it is not yet clear who was responsible for the cyber-attack. Gawker report that in an email exchange between Sony boss Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin, Rudin described Angelina Jolie as a “minimally talent spoiled brat”.
• December 10: Sony Pictures decides not to invite broadcast media to cover The Interview’s red carpet premiere and no interviews are granted to print reporters at the screening.
• December 11: Rudin apologises for the remarks he made in leaked emails calling Angelina Jolie a “spoiled brat” and making jokes about President Barack Obama’s race and presumed taste in movies.
• December 12: At the premiere of The Interview in Los Angeles Seth Rogen thanks Amy Pascal for having the courage “to make this movie”. Medical details of some Sony employees are reportedly among the documents stolen by hackers.
• December 13: The hackers are said to have promised a “Christmas gift” of “larger quantities of data”.
• December 14: Producers confirm that an “early version” of the script for the new James Bond film Spectre has been stolen and leaked by hackers.
• December 16: Hackers calling themselves Guardians of Peace make threats against the premiere of The Interview and cinemas showing the film, making references to the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001.
• December 17: Sony Pictures Entertainment tell US cinemas they can cancel plans to show The Interview. The same day, US media report that Sony Pictures have decided to cancel the film’s release on Christmas Day.