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Free Minds & Free Markets

Netflix Bows to the Saudis

Even tech giants have to follow the law.

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.

Photo Credit: Joanna Andreasson

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  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    The New York Times hasn't got time for such subtlety when there's guns to confiscate and SJWs to bolster.

  • Number 2||

    Isn't this the same New York Times that objects to Google, Facebook and Netflix using their "corporate power" to "undermine" sovereign governments and their laws? The same New York Times that wants the American government to compel these companies to remove "fake news" and "hate speech"?

  • Gibbs78||

    Yup....the same one.

    Also the same NYT that will call another country a dictatorship and compare their leadership to Hitler but will condemn and violent action against them by the US or another "1st world country". And also the same NYT that supposedly applauded AOC for being the catalyst for Amazon not moving into NYC.

  • qoheleth||

    On the one hand, I'm not in favor of censorship except in the "self-censorship" sense of having each consumer make an educated choice on their own. That said, I'd also note that sovereign governments can and do choose what enters their borders, whether those borders are physical or internet-based. Netflix is doing what they already do in other countries: They gear their product to fit the "sensibilities" of that country and so are allowed in. You could liken it to the "kids" filter they have in the U.S. (which highlights the disagreeable "government acting as parents" aspect).

  • Inigo Montoya||

    I get that these companies see it as a cost of doing business, but it's a shame more of them don't tell oppressive governments to "fuck off, slavers."

    I'm not about to cancel Netflix quite yet, but one of the reasons I switched to DuckDuckGo was Google's servile attitude towards and willing collaboration with the Chinese government.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    The great thing about all knowing for sure that governments are able to control parts of the internet into their countries is that some smart person will likely invent a more decentralized internet that minimizes government's ability to control the internet.

  • vek||

    Well, it's not like they care on principle anyway... They only care if they can't push views THEY deem correct anyhow. The gladly censor legal speech of the right wing or libertarian variety all over the world. So I will be crying no rivers for them until they show an inclination towards caring about these things for EVERYBODY.

  • Cranedoc||

    NYTimes only cares about this one tiny act of censorship in a foreign country because it's currently popular among the Leftist crowd to hate on the saudi royals especially that Abdullah guy.
    Last year they would have called you racist for saying something bad about the Islamic Monarchy which does little but export oil and terror and hate.
    Actually, what our government (and yes, Trump) recognizes is that the Saudi royals are the cork in that powder keg, keeping the barbarians of the desert contained and under control. Sure they use barbaric means to do so, because that's what works with barbarians who haven't advanced culturally since the 7th century.

  • vek||

    Yup.

    And if we had left all the other dictators in the middle east and north Africa alone too, the whole damn place would be fairly neat and orderly now. If they're ever to transition to being modern republics, it is going to be a slow and steady process brought about by the will of the people, not an overnight thing because the USA decrees it.

  • majil||

    Brave firefighters indeed

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    In January, The New York Times reported that free speech had suffered a setback

    Ahahahahahahahahaha.

    Hahahahahhahahaa.

    Hahhahahahahahahahaha. Oh God. My sides.

    Haaahahahahahaha. Aha. Hahaha. Aaaah.

    Token words of concern for ovine welfare written by a hungry wolf.

  • JWatts||

    " But, and this is a point that one hopes Times editors will recognize, the same rule should apply to Netflix as well."

    That's just funny. I don't think anyone believes the NYT's editors are likely to learn that lesson.

  • Mike d||

    At least the Saudis haven't (yet) taken the next step, putting pressure to censor content OUTSIDE of their own borders, something China actually has done.

    There was a case where some movie maker tried making a film (to be release within the US) and pitching it to Sony, but they turned him down because they had other movies they wanted to sell in China.

  • Mike d||

    At least the Saudis haven't (yet) taken the next step, putting pressure to censor content OUTSIDE of their own borders, something China actually has done.

    There was a case where some movie maker tried making a film (to be release within the US) and pitching it to Sony, but they turned him down because they had other movies they wanted to sell in China.

  • PWats||

    Wow...Netflix censoring content. Who would have guessed.

  • MJBinAL||

    Hmm, so you are saying that other countries have different laws than we have? Different cultures enforced by law as well?

    Bbb... but I thought the official Reason view was that national borders were unimportant and unnecessary because everywhere is the same and our values would win out everywhere if only we had faith and eliminated all controls on immigration, international travel, and trade?

    Good Golly Gosh! Next you are going to notice that immigrants somethings destroy the nations they invade in vast numbers and managed trade by other nations might have military implications. Something about cultures, values, and willingness to sacrifice economic prosperity for military advantage etc.

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