Tech companies have proved themselves to be cowards – and Netflix is no different

Netflix pulled a stand-up special in Saudi Arabia at the request of senior government officials. Why are we surprised?

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On the morning of the first day of the year, the Financial Times gave us about three seconds to enjoy 2019 before reporting that Netflix had pulled an episode of its comedy series Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj in Saudi Arabia, at the request of senior Saudi Arabian officials. In the stand-up set, Minhaj blames the Saudis for the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and criticises the government for the ever-changing and dodgy nature of the story, taking particular aim at Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

“The Saudis were struggling to explain his disappearance: they said he left the consulate safely, then they used a body double to make it seem like he was alive,” Minhaj says about the murdered journalist, in the now-removed episode “Saudi Arabia”. “At one point they were saying he died in a fist fight, Jackie Chan-style. They went through so many explanations. The only one they didn’t say was that Khashoggi died in a free solo rock-climbing accident.” In an official statement on the controversy, Netflix claimed that it removed the episode to merely comply with local laws in Saudi Arabia, only pulling it after a “valid legal request”.

Articles on this story are dotted with mentions of “outrage” and “denouncement”, particularly from Western Netflix subscribers angry at the streaming service bowing to Saudi interests. The backlash is also underpinned by implied surprise, as if Netflix subscribers were flabbergasted – shocked – that their favourite (read: only) video streaming service was complying with the rules of a questionable governments, instead of providing Saudi subscribers with the content Netflix users can access in any other country in the world.

Is this worth the outrage? Sure. It’s a bad, arguably gross decision made in bad faith by a tech giant branding itself as woke and millennial. But is this decision even remotely surprising? Not in the slightest.

I don’t know how many times to say it, or how many different ways to spin it. Even the “nicest” global tech companies (the ones considered to be your most beloved services and apps), do not care about what you want or think if it doesn't drastically affect their revenue. I’ve written about this before, even as recently as December, when Tumblr implemented a porn ban. In the piece, I complained about having to write the same article over and over again, perpetually lamenting tech companies’ short-sighted decisions, spending less time thinking about their reputation amongst their users and a lot more time thinking about greater interests. And, in less than a month, here I am, writing it again. Netflix has shown itself to be no different to its fellow tech giants, displaying a level of cowardice and disregard entirely common in its industry.

Clearly Tumblr banning porn is not a human rights issue on the scale of murdering a journalist in an embassy. Indeed, many of the issues we've seen from tech companies recently (like Facebook potentially being responsible for ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and Twitter failing to ban Nazis) affect human rights in very different ways. However, despite their nuances, these issues are all born out of the same problem: tech companies are, on the whole, prioritising influential, lucrative interests over what their users expect, want, and most importantly, actually need. Whether that be investments, ad sales, or powerful governments, tech companies are far less concerned with providing an ethical and responsible platform that keeps their users safe than they are with what's going to make them money. Losing a couple of principled subscribers over this decision is worth it for Netflix to stay in the good graces of the Saudi kingdom, which controls its access to hundreds of thousands of current subscribers (and a growing subscriber base) in the country.

As much as we might have hoped it was exceptional, Netflix has added itself to that ever-growing list of tech giants ignoring their subscribers’ interests. And this should, really, come as no surprise. Tech companies have long proved themselves to be cowards – why should we expect them to act like anything else?

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.