As Netflix Goes Global, Saudi Arabia Isn't the Only Trouble Spot

iStock; Cara Howe/Netflix
'Patriot Act' is not the first American-made Netflix original to be removed abroad.

Backlash over pulling an episode of Hasan Minhaj's show may only be the beginning as the streaming giant courts controversy with politically charged original series from India to Israel.

On Jan. 6, 2016, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings stood onstage at CES in Las Vegas and declared that the audience was "witnessing the birth of a global TV network." Now, three years later, the streaming behemoth is learning the unique challenges that come with being a content provider in more than 190 countries.

Netflix began 2019 facing criticism over its decision to remove an episode of comedian Hasan Minhaj's Patriot Act in Saudi Arabia. The episode — which features Minhaj lambasting the actions of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom the CIA has concluded ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — was subject to a takedown notice from the Kingdom, Netflix says, for violating its Anti-Cyber Crime Law.

Netflix defended its decision as complying with a "valid legal demand." But Khashoggi's Washington Post editor, Karen Attiah, has called the move "quite outrageous," and numerous columns, including one in The New Yorker, have argued that Netflix put its desire to grow abroad ahead of human rights concerns. Minhaj, for his part, pointed out the irony of banning the episode but leaving the segment in question up on YouTube.

"Netflix has paying customers in Saudi Arabia, and not complying with the order likely would have resulted in the government blocking Netflix," notes Jillian York, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "At the same time, it's a choice to operate in Saudi Arabia at all, and we believe that Netflix and all companies should take into account the human rights situation of a country when choosing to enter the market."

Patriot Act is not the first American-made Netflix original to be removed abroad — the streamer also pulled three marijuana-related programs, including Kathy Bates' Disjointed, in Singapore over the country's stringent laws about the positive portrayal of drugs — and it's unlikely to be the last. As its overseas subscriber base (now 73.5 million) grows, the streamer is expected to face more scrutiny about its content in countries where censorship is commonplace.

Netflix has been the target of political backlash for programs like Israel's Fauda, from pro-Palestinian groups over its portrayal of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and Amo in the Philippines, for appearing supportive of President Rodrigo Duterte's controversial drug war. In India, a local politician has filed suit against Netflix for a perceived negative portrayal of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on Sacred Games.

Meanwhile, China remains off-limits to Netflix after government regulators there have blocked it from operating. Instead, in 2017, Netflix struck a licensing agreement with Baidu's iQiyi to make programming like Stranger Things available to Chinese viewers.

Netflix's approach has been not to self-censor its content abroad, but to comply with takedown requests. A source familiar with the company's thinking says Netflix is open to at some point establishing a public report about takedowns that occur on its platform, much like larger (and free) platforms YouTube and Facebook.

But could Netflix run afoul of creative talent if it continues to bow to hardline international regulators? So far, there has been very little pushback in the Hollywood community over the Patriot Act decision. "I don't think there will be a backlash," says Wedbush's Michael Pachter. "If they want to do business in repressive countries, they have to deal with repression."

Netflix has been careful to avoid conflict with its locally produced content (one reason, perhaps, that shows like Fauda and Amo are viewed as toeing the party line in their countries of origin). "Netflix has done a good job of picking safe bets by hiring producers with solid track records," notes a high-level European broadcast executive. "These aren't people who want to piss off the audience. They know how far they can go."

Scott Roxborough contributed to this report.

This story appears in the Jan. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.