Following a week of shoving copious amounts of food and drink down our throats, suffering difficult relatives and inexplicably consuming hours of the worst that Christmas TV had to offer – Bird Box, anyone? – most would be forgiven for being more concerned with questions like “Are you still watching?” after a good old binge, as opposed to “Is Netflix compromising its morals?”
But now, thanks to the company’s decision to pull an episode of comedian Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act from the platform in Saudi Arabia for violating the country’s anti-cyber crime law, the conundrum of Netflix’s stance on freedom of expression has become a burning issue.
Reports say the second episode of the series – which heavily criticises the country’s leader Mohammed bin Salman for his alleged role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as Saudi Arabia’s part in furthering Yemen’s humanitarian crisis – was pulled after the country’s communications and information technology commission issued a complaint to Netflix, leaving it available only on YouTube in Saudi Arabia.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for a backlash. Karen Attiah, Khashoggi’s former editor at the Washington Post, referred to the decision as “quite outrageous”, and others called for creatives associated with the streaming service to publicly criticise the decision.
Netflix, however, speaking to the Financial Times, insisted its decision didn’t affect its dedication to supporting “artistic freedom”, adding it simply respected Saudi Arabia’s request because of its validity, “and to comply with local law”.
Of course, many would argue that “complying” with Saudi Arabia’s regime under any circumstance is indefensible, especially given the fact Minhaj specifically aimed to use his platform to highlight atrocities run by such oppressive regimes.
It’s also worth pointing out that failing to stand firmly behind the artists associated with the content it pushes is the last thing Netflix (and companies like it) should be doing.
Given Saudi Arabia’s reputation for a lack of freedom of press – according to Reporters Without Borders, it came 169th out of 180 countries in 2018, and is expected to do even worse this year – it’s not unreasonable to question how digital giants can defend bending to the will of a world superpower with such a disregard for human rights.
Nevertheless, there is something to be said about the fact Netflix has found a workaround which allows Saudi citizens access to the episode elsewhere. It does demonstrate how other streaming services could potentially sidestep the constraints of similar regimes if faced with such dilemmas in the future.
More importantly, the heightened pressure could potentially force companies to rethink their public policy when it comes to protecting the rights of citizens in countries that push for censorship. Amazon Prime – which has been known to self-censor in India – for example may think twice about furthering its restrictions on certain content in specific countries in the future after this Netflix backlash. And Google has been fighting a PR battle to regain good optics ever since it cancelled its development of a fully censored search engine called Dragonfly for use in China, following criticism (many of which came from its own engineers).
As the New America foundation’s Rebecca MacKinnon has told the Financial Times, if companies like Netflix and Amazon fail to seriously consider developing more ethical policies, “then they are not following established industry best practice for being accountable and responsible in handling government demands to restrict content”.
In a world where digital companies grapple with issues as they cross borders, the question is: how much restriction is too much? And how neutral can the companies that engage with such different kinds of governments afford – ethically and financially – to be?
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