Google, Twitter and Apple report requests to take down content. Why doesn't Netflix?

In their last transparency reports, Google listed one disclosure request from Saudi Arabia and Twitter reported eight removal requests.
Image: Netflix's "Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj."
Netflix's "Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj."Cara Howe / Netflix

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By Alyssa Newcomb

After Netflix caved to a legal threat from authorities in Saudi Arabia and removed an episode of “Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj” in that country, the streaming service is facing calls to start issuing transparency reports.

Many of Netflix’s big tech peers, including Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter, release bi-annual reports that detail government requests they receive from each country where they operate. The reports don’t delve into specifics, but do shed light on the types of requests and how frequently each company complied.

Netflix removed the episode after receiving a legal notice from the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission, which claimed the episode violated Article 6 of its anti-cyber crime law, which relates to impinging public order in the kingdom. The episode in question was filmed after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and includes criticism of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The removal was first reported by the Financial Times.

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“Who’s that kicking off 2019 by being repression’s little helper? Netflix,” tweeted Eva Galperin, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s director of cybersecurity.

A Netflix spokesperson declined to comment on whether the company might consider releasing a transparency report in the future. A statement from the company said it supports artistic freedom but that, in this case, it was complying with a valid legal request.

In the case of national security-related requests in the U.S., companies are held to a six-month reporting delay and are only allowed to report the number of requests in brackets covering increments of 500.

The most recent versions of transparency reports cover the period from January to June of 2018. While Saudi Arabia hasn’t made as many requests as other countries, the kingdom has still issued similar orders to the tech giants, who complied to varying degrees.

During that time, Google listed one emergency request from Saudi Arabia covering four users or accounts. Google said it handed over at least “some” data as part of the request.

Twitter reported eight removal requests and three requests for user information from Saudi Arabia, but said no information was turned over to the government. Facebook reported no requests.

“Censorship to comply with the law is still censorship,” tweeted Matt Cagle, a technology and civil liberties attorney with the ACLU. “Netflix should commit to fight for free expression & it should release a transparency report detailing demands like these.”

For his part, Minhaj used the incident to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.