By Chloe Aiello
Netflix may benefit in the short-term from its decision to pull an episode of a comedy show that criticized Saudi Arabia's royal family, but in the long-term, the move could hurt the public's trust in the brand, Jack Crowe of the National Review told Cheddar Wednesday.
"In the long-term, if Netflix begins to be seen by the public in the same light that Google and Facebook are increasingly seen, which is essentially companies that are willing to subvert democracy and human rights in order to profit, it will obviously be a net negative for the company," Crowe told Cheddar on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the streaming giant confirmed it removed an episode of comedian Hasan Minhaj's "The Patriot Act" from viewing in Saudi Arabia after pressure from the Saudi royal family. In the episode, Minhaj was deeply critical of Saudi Arabia's role in the war in Yemen, its ties to Silicon Valley, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's alleged role in the gruesome murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The request was platform-specific to Netflix, so versions of the skit remain on YouTube.
"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 ー and to comply with local law," a Netflix spokesperson said in a statement.
A fine of up to $800,000 and five years in prison are potential consequences for violating Saudi Arabia's Anti-Cyber Crime Law. Alternatively, Saudi Arabia could have blocked Netflix altogether.
"In the short-term, it was probably the right move to comply with Saudi Arabia," Crowe said. "They don't want to lose the Saudi Arabian market."
A Netflix spokesperson also defended the move on ethical grounds, arguing that it is preferable to remove one piece of content than risk having the entire service blocked, especially considering the platform has other content that pushes boundaries in Saudi Arabia, including stories that promote LGBTQ rights and more progressive attitudes toward women.
Whether or not Netflix's move establishes a new precedent for company policy, however, all depends on how the streaming company responds to backlash, Crowe said. Under similar criticism, Google backed down to public pressure when it effectively shuttered its controversial, censored Chinese search engine project.
A Netflix spokesperson, however, said the circumstances are not equivalent to Google, Alphabet's YouTube, or Facebook ($FB), because those platforms deal with a vastly larger quantity of user-generated content and raise questions about self-censorship, rather than compliance.
"This is a tough tightrope they have to walk," Crowe said. "At what point does a concern like human rights and freedom of expression trump Netflix's duty to shareholders and its business responsibilities? I think that's a question that companies are increasingly forced to navigate in this day and age."