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No sooner had the Taliban taken power in Afghanistan than Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other large Internet platform companies were faced with an unpleasant decision: What to do with the online accounts that the Taliban will use to spread their messages and establish their legitimacy?
The decision implies that internet companies choose to recognize the Taliban as the official government of Afghanistan or to isolate them based on the group’s history of violence and repression. Governments around the world are also in this predicament.
I want us to pause and sit back and think about how uncomfortable it is to have internet powerhouses largely acting as unaccountable ministries of state. You don’t do this all by yourself and you don’t really have a choice. It is still very rare for a handful of unelected tech executives to play such a role on global issues of so great importance.
One way the Taliban could try to gain the trust of Afghans is by appearing on social media as the legitimate government, and in the face of that opportunity, internet companies are trying to figure out how to deal with the situation.
Facebook has banned Taliban-related accounts for years as part of its three-tier policy for “dangerous organizations”. In addition, this week the company announced it would continue to remove Taliban accounts and publications that endorse the group. This includes a hotline for Afghan Taliban citizens on WhatsApp, which Facebook owns (the Taliban now control a country, but are not allowed to set up a Facebook group).
Due to US sanctions against the Afghan Taliban, YouTube announced that it would also delete accounts it believes are operated by the group. Twitter doesn’t have an outright ban, but it did tell CNN that any post or video must comply with rules that prohibit what the platform considers to be hate speech or incitement to violence. My colleagues Sheera Frenkel and Ben Decker found examples of Thaliban-friendly social media accounts and posts that have sprung up despite these bans, including a Facebook page that called itself a grocery store but posted Thaliban-friendly news in the past few days.
US Internet companies operate under the laws of their home country and those of the countries in which they operate; In addition, suggestions from the international community are incorporated. Ultimately, however, these are private companies that have to make their own decisions.
It was Facebook, YouTube and Twitter that decided in January that then-President Donald Trump’s words could cause more violence if published on their websites. Twitter had a choice when the Indian government ordered the removal of what the country’s leaders considered subversive and what others believed was about the basic freedom of expression in a democracy. When Burmese military personnel used the social network as an ethnic cleansing tool, Facebook decided not to intervene instead of taking action.
In any event, unelected tech executives, especially in the United States, had to make decisions the consequences of which resonated with elected citizens and executives. Unlike governments, Internet companies are also not accountable to the public when people disagree with their decisions. Citizens cannot vote to remove Mark Zuckerberg from office.
The history of American companies that influenced events abroad to protect their interests is often long and terrifying. Media moguls have helped start wars and have chosen their preferred candidates. The attitude of Facebook, YouTube, and other US internet companies feels different. Their products are so widespread that their influence isn’t really a decision. They have to act as diplomats, whether they like it or not.
I almost feel a little sorry (almost) for American internet companies. They wanted to change the world … and they did. Now they have become so powerful that they have to make difficult decisions about an imperfect world. You and we live with the consequences.
Shira Ovide writes the On Tech newsletter, a guide to how technology is reshaping our lives and the world. @ShiraOvide