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Netflix Expands Into a World Full of Censors


ISTANBUL — In September, Netflix released a trailer for the “Breaking Bad” sequel “El Camino.” In it, a character sits in a car, lights a cigarette and holds it out the window, its orange tip glowing.

The next day, Netflix Turkey released its own version. In it, the character sparks a lighter and puts his hand out of the window. But there’s a difference: The cigarette has been edited out.

It wasn’t the first time Netflix had censored one of its trailers here. In January, the streaming giant edited one for “Sex Education,” a series about a teenage sex therapist, to blur a character’s hands so you couldn’t see the raised middle fingers.

These changes may seem small, but they are a sign of Netflix trying to get ahead of regulation it could soon face in Turkey.

Streaming services have previously been allowed to operate outside the country’s censorship rules, set by Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council. But in September, all streaming services had to apply for a license after rules came into force to regulate the internet and crack down on dissent.

Netflix, which has 1.5 million subscribers here, is the most prominent streaming service to apply.

If Netflix gets a license, it will have to comply with the council’s rules. These state that programming cannot be “contrary to the national and moral values of the society,” “encourage the use of addictive substances,” “glorify committing a crime,” “be obscene,” or even feature “slang and poor quality use” of the Turkish language.

The rules are open to interpretation. One screenwriter said they were so vague that they were impossible to second-guess. But the council has fined Turkish broadcasters for showing everything from excessive kissing to alcohol. In August, it fined a network for broadcasting an episode of “9-1-1,” the Fox police series, because it featured a gay couple kissing. That was “a relationship model contrary to our values” and harmed families, the ruling said.

Netflix, and other streaming platforms say that streaming is different from broadcast TV because it is behind a pay wall and all content has age ratings and warnings. If someone is exposed to, say, sex, it is because they chose to be. But some fear that will not be enough.

In Turkey, and in other countries, Netflix must navigate different political and moral landscapes, and calls for censorship, as it expands worldwide. Its 2018 annual report lists both “censorship” and “the need to adapt our content and users interfaces for specific cultural and language differences” as business risks. But as its subscriber growth in the United States stalls, the firm needs to keep growing significantly overseas in order to keep investors happy and stave off the competition from services like Apple TV Plus and HBO Max.

India is another country where Netflix has been embroiled in debates around regulation and censorship. In 2017, the company offered viewers “Angry Indian Goddesses,” a movie that had been released in Indian theaters in a censored form to avoid offending religious sensibilities.

Netflix, which is not subject to India’s movie theater code, initially showed the censored version anyway, to avoid a backlash from religious viewers, Mr. Nalin said. But complaints came instead from viewers who wanted to see the movie uncut. Netflix made that version available and released a statement: “Our members reached out to us and we listened.”

Gowree Gokhale, a lawyer who has represented Netflix, said in a telephone interview that the company had been named in three court cases over streaming services in India in which members of the public have called for streaming services to be regulated like Indian movie theaters, with government oversight and age restrictions on some content.

Nikhil Pahwa, the founder of Medianama, a news service that covers India’s streaming industry, said in a telephone interview that the cases showed the pressure streaming services were under. Religious content had been a point of contention, he added.

Netflix signed a voluntary agreement in India, promising not to show content that “deliberately and maliciously” outrages religions or insults the national flag, among other things. This was an attempt to stave off regulation, Mr. Pahwa said.

As Netflix “moves to countries with different cultures and political rules, we’re going to see more conflict on what they should be showing,” said Adrian Shahbaz, research director for technology and democracy at the Washington-based research institute Freedom House.

It was likely Netflix would do as it was told if a government demanded a show be censored, Mr. Shahbaz said, rather than exiting a market in protest. But he added that Netflix could also highlight the fact it had complied, drawing criticism to the government’s action and encouraging people elsewhere to watch the targeted show.

Mr. Shahbaz pointed out that Netflix had done that last year after it complied with a request from the government of Saudi Arabia to block an episode of the comedy show “Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj” that criticized the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in the country.

Mr. Shahbaz said some restrictions on Netflix in Turkey were “very likely.” But the company itself has played down the possibility. In September, Netflix said on Twitter that it had not had any requests from Turkey’s government to censor content.

Netflix was in discussions with Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council about “how to further strengthen our parental controls,” as part of its license application, a spokesman said in an email. “Our goal is to protect children from content that may be inappropriate for their age, while ensuring our members can continue to watch the shows and films of their choice,” he added.

Some commentators feel parental controls will not be enough. Ertugrul Ozkok, a former editor in chief of the daily newspaper Hurriyet who has written about Netflix, said in a telephone interview that “If you look at how the Radio and Television Supreme Council executes its power on traditional TV, it doesn’t give me hope it will be different for streaming.”

He was concerned that if Netflix came under the council’s regulations, it would require Netflix to remove L.G.B.T. content, he said. Other newspapers had complained about some Netflix programs, he said. In July, Akif Beki, a former spokesman for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, wrote in an opinion piece in the newspaper Karar that “Netflix continuously squeezes in messages to normalize homosexuality.” Mr. Beki named “Orange is the New Black,” “Black Mirror” and “Money Heist,” among others, as shows that did this.

Even some members of the country’s political opposition, seen as more liberal, had criticized Netflix for its gay content, Mr. Ozkok said. “If you regulate that, it says you see the L.G.B.T. minority as illegal, as something out of the morality of society,” he added.

Mr. Ozkok said he didn’t want any censorship. “Streaming is something new and most people see in it a king of freedom,” he said: “Freedom of speech and content and art.” He could not even see a reason for censoring smoking, as happened with the “El Camino” trailer, he said.

“In my family there are three generations of women, and they are all smoking,” he said. “And they are watching the TV where it is banned.”

It doesn’t have any effect on their behavior,” he added.

Suhasini Raj contributed reporting from New Delhi.


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