Bans, Censorship and Boycotts: Netflix Faces Increased Scrutiny Overseas

Courtesy of Netflix
From left: 'Fauda,' 'Patriot Act' and 'Baby'

As the streamer expands rapidly worldwide, it finds itself embroiled in regional controversies — for example, there were calls in Jordan to ban a show in which a female actor kisses two different boys — while navigating a minefield of local sensibilities and regulatory and political challenges.

Until very recently, Netflix has taken a "move fast and break things" approach typical of Silicon Valley startups, with most criticism of its shows either ignored or dismissed.

But as the streamer moves from new kid on the block to industry leader, it is coming under increased scrutiny over concerns about the influence its shows might be having on children, or society at large. Take the company's decision to alter a graphic suicide scene — two years after it debuted — on its hit teen drama 13 Reasons Why, or its recent capitulation to anti-smoking advocates by committing to cut back on depictions of smoking on its shows — a response in part to outrage over the puffing seen in 1980s-set Stranger Things.

These moves follow a host of other regional controversies Netflix has found itself embroiled in as it attempts to navigate a tricky cultural landscape amid its rapid global expansion.

"Netflix has a lot of growing pains to go through," says Michael Pachter, a media analyst with Wedbush Securities. "They are now bringing a lot more of that content in-house. I think they recognize with ownership comes civic responsibility."

Ever since its aggressive launch into local-language content, controversy has followed. In Jordan this summer there were calls to ban Jinn, Netflix's first Arabic-language original series, because of two scenes in which female actor Salma Malhas kisses two different boys — shocking for some in the Muslim country. In Brazil, left-wing politicians called for a Netflix boycott in protest of José Padilha's crime series The Mechanism, a lightly fictionalized version of a political kickbacks scandal that has divided the nation. Netflix's award-winning Israeli drama Fauda has been attacked both by pro-Palestinian groups (for its sympathetic depiction of Israeli commandos) and by pro-Israel campaigners (for its sympathetic depiction of Palestinian terrorists).

It's tempting to characterize Netflix as a liberal American company facing draconian censorship abroad — as when, in January, Saudi Arabia ordered that an episode of Hasan Minhaj's Patriot Act, in which Minhaj criticized Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, be taken down (Netflix ultimately complied). Or the recent move by the Turkish government giving its national broadcast watchdog censorship powers over international streaming sites operating in the country. But international originals can also spark controversy closer to home. Baby, an Italian Netflix series that depicts high school girls drawn into a prostitution scheme, came under fire from U.S. anti-porn group the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, which claimed the show "glamorizes sexual abuse."

What is considered sensitive or scandalous also varies widely from country to country, as does local regulation. In Singapore, TV portrayals "glamorizing or encouraging the use of illegal drugs" are banned. New Zealand, a country with a startlingly high rate of teen suicide, introduced a new censorship category specifically to deal with 13 Reasons Why. The new rating, RP18, prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from watching the show without adult supervision.

As Netflix becomes truly a major player in international territories, the challenge will be navigating 190 different regulatory environments, and 190 different cultural sensitivities, while still maintaining a single service. This is a particular issue for the streamer, which wants "to be everything to everyone," as one analyst puts it, offering everything from family-friendly kids' shows to cutting-edge adult drama on a single platform, and presenting it to its global subscribers simultaneously.

"This isn't just a free speech issue and isn't just about politics," says Claire Enders of U.K.-based Enders Analysis, who believes that many of the current debates around Netflix "scandals" are really about regulation. "By 2020, Netflix's audience in the U.K. will be larger than [national commercial network] Channel 4," Enders adds. "Do you think they'll be able to avoid the same kind of regulation imposed on every broadcast and pay TV network in this country? They won't."

This story first appeared in the Aug. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.