Netflix is amazing. I'm not just talking about how a company that started out sending DVDs in the mail two years ago became a roughly $116 billion entertainment leader.

I'm thinking also about its penchant for bold, controversial decisions that could either attract or drive off subscribers. 

Cases in point: here and here. Now, Netflix is tangling with entire national governments -- and, at least in one case, acquiescing. 

The latest example has to do with what Netflix did after Saudi Arabia objected to an episode of Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj, in which Minhaj heavily criticizes Saudi prince Mohammad bin Salman, colloquially known as MbS.

"It blows my mind that it took the killing of a Washington Post journalist," Minhaj says in the video, referring to the murder of Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, "to go 'Oh, I guess [MbS is] really not a reformer.' Meanwhile, every Muslim person you know was like 'No s---!'"

Toward the end, Minhaj is even more direct, stopping just barely short of calling for a change in government.

"I am genuinely rooting for change in Saudi Arabia," he says. "I am rooting for the people of Saudi Arabia. There are people in Saudi Arabia fighting for true reform, but MbS is not one of them."

That was enough for the Saudis, who reportedly came after Netflix under Article 6 of its anti-cyber crimes law. In response, Netflix removed the episode in the country.

Let's be up front: This is all pretty darn good publicity for Hasan Minhaj. 

For Netflix itself, however, it's a lot thornier, pitting American values like free speech up against the company's desire to continue expanding its overseas subscriber base. 

"We strongly support artistic freedom and removed this episode only in Saudi Arabia after we had received a valid legal request -- and to comply with local law," a Netflix spokesperson said in a statement to the Financial Times, which first reported the story.

"It doesn't mean we agree with these laws," another spokesperson told CNN.

How do you thread that needle, though? 

Netflix has about 137 million subscribers worldwide (as of October). About 80 million of them are overseas, a number that's been growing quickly. Meantime, roughly two-thirds of Saudi Arabia's 33 million people are under 30, which means it's a great opportunity for Netflix to sign up accounts.

Making this an even tougher situation is the fact that the content the Saudis find objectionable is a direct challenge to the government itself.

In other words, it's not about Netflix censoring language to adhere to local moral or religious beliefs, or removing shows from some country's offerings because they don't have enough local employees involved in production. That happens sometimes. 

Instead, the streaming service apparently made the episode available, then backed off because the government didn't like the political message.

But on the other hand (there are a lot of "other hands" in this story), Netflix can't expect to have any influence at all in Saudi Arabia if it gets banned -- to say nothing of giving up the revenue opportunity.

"The Middle East is going to be one of the big focus markets for that local production because it's clearly a potentially lucrative and large market for them," Guy Bisson, a London-based media industry analyst and research director with Ampere Analysis, told CNN Business.

So, where does this all net out? Well for one thing, people in Saudi Arabia can reportedly still watch the episode of Patriot Act if they want, by finding it on YouTube. (Not being in Saudi Arabia myself, I can't confirm this of course.)

And while there's a lot of debate and maybe even anger, I can't imagine too many people are going to cancel their Netflix accounts over censorship of one show in a country that's not exactly known for free expression to begin with.

I mean, my wife and I are subscribers, and we're almost certainly going to watch Black MirrorBandersnatch sometime soon.

But this is just today's version of the "censor the content" versus "stand up to governments" argument.

As American companies grow even more dominant in even more international markets, we'll be having the same debate over and over -- and as Netflix itself grows even bigger, it will probably be at the center of it.
 

Published on: Jan 3, 2019
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