What is it about Silicon Valley corporations that make them want to pander to the sensitivities of oppressive dictatorships?
The answer, of course, is earnings, share price and the almighty dollar. But the recent example in which television-streaming service Netflix yanked a program critical of the oppressive Saudi Arabia regime is extreme cowardice, even for the most conflict-averse corporation.
The background: Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing journalist and Saudi dissident who was critical of the government’s intolerance of dissent, was murdered and dismembered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. International and U.S. intelligence assigned the responsibility for the killing on Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but the regime has denied his involvement. Many have called for the United States to alter diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia until justice is served in Khashoggi’s death and the nation enacts reforms regarding personal freedoms.
Netflix, which only launched its service in Saudi Arabia and dozens of other oppressive countries in early 2016, removed an episode of “Patriot Act” from its platform in the Arabic nation. The program is hosted by comedian Hasan Minhaj, an American whose family is Indian-Muslim, who rose to notoriety as part of “The Daily Show” cast. The episode in question features Minhaj criticizing bin Salman and the Saudi regime over Khashoggi’s murder and its inconsistent explanations of what happened, during a stand-up routine.
Minhaj’s routine targeted, among other things, bin Salman’s reputation as a reformer, saying, “The only thing he’s modernizing is Saudi dictatorship,” and, “It took the killing of a Washington Post journalist for everyone to go, ‘Oh, I guess he’s really not a reformer. Meanwhile, every Muslim person you know was like, ‘Fu** yeah.’”
As for Netflix, the company explained, “We strongly support artistic freedom worldwide and removed this episode only in Saudi Arabia after we had received a valid legal demand from the government — and to comply with local law.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, the episode was pulled following a request from Saudi Arabia’s Communication and Information Technology Commission, which informed the company that the episode violated “the kingdom’s anti-cybercrime law.” The law, as explained by the agency, bans “production, preparation, transmission, or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy, through the information network or computers.”
And the Washington Post reported that “Article 6 of the country’s anti-cybercrime law is punishable by up to five years in prison, and it has been used in the past to charge activists for organizing or sharing photos of protests online, and to crack down on satire.”
Making fun of political leadership is a well-worn tradition in the U.S., and punishment for it (other than troll attacks on Twitter) is a concept foreign to Americans. But freedom of the press and free speech are not held to in Saudi Arabia – the nation is ranked as the third-most-censored nation by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
As mentioned earlier, Netflix only launched in Saudi Arabia about three years ago, along with 129 other countries including Vietnam, India, and Nigeria. CEO Reed Hastings announced in his keynote address at the January 2016 Consumer Electronics Show that “you are witnessing the birth of a global TV network,” which immediately sent its stock price soaring.
Hastings has a goal of 200 million worldwide subscribers by 2021, and Netflix is increasingly buying and creating content to reach native languages and cultures. But its penetration is weak thus far in the Middle East and North Africa, compared to its competitors, according to Arab News – hence its desire to remain in the good graces of governments that can easily remove their operations entirely.
The obsession over growth and subscribership overseas apparently is not replicated here at home, however. Hastings is not afraid to join the political fray even if it costs him viewers in the U.S.
A(nother) Silicon Valley liberal, Hastings is a big donor to Democrats, giving $571,600 to various candidates, party operations and PACs for the 2018 midterms. As a member of the board of directors of Facebook, he reportedly confronted fellow tech executive Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal, for his “catastrophically bad” judgment in endorsing Donald Trump for president. He even questioned whether Thiel should remain on the Facebook board.
And in far more impactful moves for his own company, he endorsed the addition of controversial former Obama National Security Adviser Susan Rice to the board of Netflix. Rice was the official who went on network news programs and lied about the terror attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, in which four Americans were killed. She also called for the “unmasking” of the identities of members of Trump’s campaign team, who were speaking with foreign sources (which is not a crime), according to intelligence reports.
More blatantly, Netflix signed Barack and Michelle Obama to a multiyear deal to produce films and series for the network. Don’t worry, the public was told – there would be no political slant to the Obamas’ programming.
Then the first project they planned was announced – an adaption of Michael Lewis’s book The Fifth Risk, which Entertainment Weekly said “ranks among the most scathing takes on the president’s tenure thus far.” A USA Today review characterized it as “a brilliant indictment of Trump and his appointees’ foolhardy ignorance of what federal agencies actually do and how.”
Netflix has also featured programming of several liberal comedians whose frequent target is Trump, including Michelle Wolf, Chelsea Handler, as well as Minhaj. Meanwhile there is no significant counter-political presence on the platform.
Conservatives began to take notice. In YouGov polling last year, they began to drop their Netflix accounts in droves. Activists started a #CancelNetflix hashtag.
“The streaming giant’s favorability among conservatives has fallen 16 percent this year, while it’s risen 15 percent among liberals,” reported The Observer. “Republicans reportedly feel that Netflix is alienating them in favor of Democrats.”
That, of course, likely affects subscribership and the bottom line far more than a few eyeballs in Saudi Arabia.
But that’s Silicon Valley, Netflix and CEOs like Reed Hastings for you – tough guys/gals with the free speech lovers at home, but cowardly with the murderous dictators abroad.