Pundits routinely conflate clapback with censorship, claiming persecution when private companies like Facebook, Apple and Twitter police their platforms by ousting racists and conspiracy-mongering trolls. But one Silicon Valley giant came under fire in recent days for ceding to actual, civil rights-violating suppression of free speech.
Last week, Netflix bowed to an autocratic government’s order to silence a critic.
According to a Jan. 1 Financial Times report, the Los Gatos-based streaming service yanked an episode in Saudi Arabia of “The Patriot Act” over host Hasan Minhaj’s condemnation of the kingdom’s murderous monarchy.
In the show’s second installment, which first aired Oct. 28, the California-bred Muslim-American comedian rebuked Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the slaying of renowned columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war in Yemen.
“It blows my mind that it took the killing of a Washington Post journalist for everyone to go, ‘Oh, I guess he’s not really a reformer,” Minhaj observed of 33-year-old bin Salman, who’s accused by the U.S. Senate and the CIA of orchestrating the gruesome killing.
Minhaj also slammed Silicon Valley for choosing money over morals.
The crown prince has famously cozied up to tech industry elites as oil-fueled Saudi wealth became the biggest funding source for U.S. companies, including Uber, Twitter, Tesla, DoorDash, Slack and Nvidia, among others. Last year, bin Salman touched down in East Palo Alto to hobnob with bigwigs from Palantir, Clarium Capital, Valar Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz and Y-Combinator.
“WeWork won’t let you expense meat,” Minhaj remarked about the startup going vegetarian over environmental concerns, “but you take money from Saudi Arabia? So you’re against slaughterhouses unless they’re in Yemen?”
The show’s commentary—which should resonate with the South Bay politicos and business boosters who joined a delegation to Riyadh last spring—prompted a legal warning from Saudi officials who claimed it violated the kingdom’s cybercrime statutes.
Samah Hadid, the Middle East director of Human rights group Amnesty International, called Saudi Arabia’s censorship further proof of a relentless crackdown on dissent and an assault on international norms.
“Netflix is in danger of facilitating the kingdom’s zero-tolerance policy on freedom of expression and assisting the authorities in denying people’s right to freely access information,” he said in a statement to reporters.
Netflix downplayed its decision as banal and benign.
“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,” the company insisted.
That same broadly worded local law has been used by Saudi prosecutors to justify the jailing, torture and death of people who dare to speak out against the royal regime.
In a tweet, Minhaj scoffed at the futility of attempting to silence him considering that Saudi citizens can still find the offending episode on another popular platform.
“Clearly,” he wrote, “the best way to stop people from watching something is to ban it, make it a trend online and then leave it up on YouTube.”