In January, The New York Times reported that free speech had suffered a setback when Netflix restricted access to an episode of a comedy act at the request of the government of Saudi Arabia. The episode of Hasan Minhaj's Patriot Act, which included impolitic remarks about the Saudi crown prince, remains available to Netflix subscribers elsewhere.
The Times underscored its displeasure by publishing an opinion piece attacking "Netflix's supine compliance" in the face of a "dictatorial crackdown," with a historical Hitler reference tossed in for good measure. A few days later, the Times published a second opinion article lamenting that the "streaming giant has set a disturbing precedent" and has "lent some legitimacy to the claim that it is wrong for Saudis to ever hear their leaders criticized."
It's true, of course, that the absolute monarchy ruling Saudi Arabia lacks a sense of humor, tolerates no criticism, and has a disturbing affinity for bonesaws. Human Rights Watch says its authorities repress anyone who dares to express "views against government policies." Offenders may be detained, abused, and flogged. Blasphemy is illegal. So are public gatherings. Religions other than Islam are unlawful and Christians are persecuted: In Saudi Arabia, celebrating Christmas is, literally, a crime.
It's also true that tech companies, whose execs generally view a partial product as better than no product at all, are required to comply with the laws of the countries in which they operate. Otherwise they risk their employees being imprisoned, or worse.
This happened a few years ago to Facebook's vice president for Latin America, Diego Dzodan, when police in Brazil concluded the social network was being less than helpful in providing users' communications to the government on request. Dzodan was released on a technicality after a night in jail, but by then the legal threat was clear. French authorities delivered a similar warning when they arrested Uber France's CEO and Uber Europe's general manager on charges of running an illegal taxi company. A Brazilian judge ordered the arrest of a Google executive when the company balked at removing a YouTube video that criticized a local mayoral candidate.
Netflix, Facebook, Google, and other platforms would be delighted if these country-by-country restrictions vanished. But until that happens, internet companies that don't comply are likely to find their websites blocked and their executives imprisoned. Surprisingly, regional vice presidents are not known for volunteering to become free speech martyrs.
Netflix followed the same broad path—call it the least-worst option—that the Times itself follows when complying with laws in Persian Gulf nations that impose censorship requirements.
Take the wealthy enclave of Qatar, which prohibits newspaper articles that talk favorably about sex and alcohol or unfavorably about the government and ruling family. The allure of doing business in Doha, which boasts an I.M. Pei–designed Museum of Islamic Art and is spending $200 billion on the 2022 World Cup, can apparently overcome scruples about censorship. The Times began publishing operations in the country in 2007, then launched a Qatar-specific style magazine three years later.
Last July, ABC News noticed that about a dozen Times news articles and at least one advertisement had been censored in Qatar: They were replaced with blank rectangles and a printer's note saying they were "exceptionally removed." The Times did not respond by pulling out of the lucrative Qatari market. Instead, a spokesman offered a statement to ABC News acknowledging, delicately, that "we understand that our publishing partners are sometimes faced with local pressures." Full-throated condemnation this was not.
We might expect more than a soppy, milquetoast statement from an influential American newspaper when its reporting is censored. Even so, the Times should not be savaged for continuing to operate in Qatar; a partially censored paper may be better than no paper at all. But, and this is a point that one hopes Times editors will recognize, the same rule should apply to Netflix as well.
Threatening any company because it posted what most of us—in freer societies, at least—would call political speech is an affront to human dignity and the individual rights that flow from it. Unfortunately, in too many countries, it's also the law of the land.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Netflix Bows to the Saudis".