“We’re not in the news business, we’re not doing truth to power, we’re trying to entertain,” said Netflix CEO Reed Hastings in defence of the company’s decision to pull an episode of Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj from Saudi Arabia at the New York Times’ Dealbook conference. Patriot Act‘s second episode — pulled in January — focused on Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It criticised the Saudi government’s reaction to Khashoggi’s brutal death, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. The Saudi government had said that it violated the kingdom’s anti-cyber crime law.
“We can accomplish a lot more by being entertainment and influence the conversation about the way people live, rather than being another news channel.” — Netflix CEO Reed Hastings
Some lines would not be crossed: Hastings said that if some country opposed LGBTQ programming and asked Netflix to remove them, it would not do so. He also said that the Saudi government allows Netflix to stream provocative narrative shows like Sex Education without edits.
- But where and how does Netflix draw this line? It appears that each of the decisions are made depending on the business interests, appeal of such decisions (to American citizens), and which country is making the demand for such a removal.
It is worth noting that when the episode was pulled earlier this year, Netflix had said that, “We strongly support artistic freedom worldwide and only removed this episode in Saudi Arabia after we had received a valid legal request — and to comply with local law.”
One could argue that Netflix has spoken truth to power before. For instance, it is fighting a defamation lawsuit against two lawyers attempting to stall the streaming of The Laundromat, a movie that examines the Panama Papers and how the powerful hide their wealth.
Why this matters: It’s another instance of multinational technology corporations, particularly American companies, choosing (or having to choose) between toeing an authoritarian government’s line to secure business interests and upholding free speech values. Additionally, there’s increasing concern about tech companies having to remove content globally, in response to a legal order from a country.
- An older instance was Snapchat’s removal of Al Jazeera from its Discover tab in Saudi, because the Saudi government claimed that Al Jazeera had violated its media and cyber crime laws.
- There is increasing concern that authoritarian governments such as China are dictating what technology platforms can and cannot show. For instance, TikTok censors content about Tiananmen Square and the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests that shows the Chinese government in an unfavourable light not just in China, but worldwide.
- In India, the Delhi High Court has ruled that Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter have to globally disable access to offensive content if such content is uploaded from India. Facebook has challenged this order.