Netflix’s Bow to Saudi Censors Comes at a Cost to Free Speech

One person outside the production, who was briefed on the deliberations in real time, told me Netflix discussed potential problems the episode would cause in Saudi Arabia before Mr. Minhaj filmed it, and raised the idea of scuttling it. This person would only speak on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the private discussions. An executive at the company, speaking on condition of anonymity for the same reason, said it only shared potential legal consequences with Mr. Minhaj’s team as due diligence, noting it ultimately went forward with the show and its distribution in Saudi Arabia.

Until it didn’t.

There have been other times when American businesses put American values above their bottom lines. After Steven Van Zandt, the E Street Band guitarist, led a musicians’ boycott of South Africa to protest apartheid, corporations including Coca-Cola, General Electric and GTE followed suit by withdrawing from the country.

It’s true that the entertainment industry did not bathe itself in glory during Hitler’s early years.

But throughout the war and afterward, they, along with many other major American corporations, joined the robust national effort to defeat the Nazis and promote American values throughout Europe, which helped the United States win the Cold War.

It’s a little hard to imagine such a national effort coming together now.

Maybe that’s partly because the major social media and entertainment platforms have such global scale that they’re almost their own borderless governments.

“It seems to be a moment in the evolution of the corporation that it starts to become akin to a world actor in its own right,” Nicholas J. Cull, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism who has written extensively on the American information effort during the Cold War. When it comes to their home country, he said, “It’s, ‘We’re sympathetic, but we have our own set of interests.’”

The media behemoths would be wise to remember that their future growth will rely on having the same liberties that fostered their creation.

I’m reminded of a line from the Netflix-BBC One co-production of “Watership Down,” based on Richard Adams’s allegorical novel about a noble herd of rabbits’ pursuit of a peaceful homeland. After their leader Hazel helps another group of rabbits escape a totalitarian warren, he tells them, “You have fought so hard to earn your freedom, but now you must fight to keep it, because the battle for liberty is one which has no end.”

Take heed, Netflix.