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Tech Companies’ Afghanistan Foreign Policy

Tech Companies’ Afghanistan Foreign Policy

As we saw with the fall of Kabul, a small number of tech executives who aren’t elected play a big role in high-stakes world events.

Almost as soon as the Taliban took power again in Afghanistan, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other large internet companies had to make a hard choice: what to do about the Taliban’s online accounts, which they used to spread their message and prove they were real?

The question is whether the online companies will recognize the Taliban as the official government of Afghanistan or cut them off because of their history of violence and oppression. Even international governments are trying to figure this out.

I want us to stop and feel the discomfort of internet powers that act like state departments that don’t have to answer to anyone. They don’t do this on their own, and they don’t have many other choices. Still, it’s crazy that a few tech executives who weren’t elected are involved in high-stakes global issues.

The Taliban are trying to get Afghans to trust them by using social media to make it look like they are a real government. The companies that run the Internet are trying to figure out what to do.

Tech Companies’ Afghanistan Foreign Policy

Facebook has banned Taliban-related accounts for years as part of its three-tiered policy for “dangerous organizations.” This week, the company said it will keep removing accounts and posts that support the Taliban. This includes giving Afghans a helpline on the Facebook-owned app WhatsApp. (The Taliban now run a country, but they are not allowed to start a Facebook group.)

Because of U.S. sanctions against the Afghan Taliban, YouTube said it would delete accounts it thinks are run by the group. Twitter doesn’t have a blanket ban, but a representative told CNN that any post or video must follow rules that ban what Twitter considers to be hate speech or calls to violence. Even though the Taliban was not allowed on social media, my coworkers Sheera Frenkel and Ben Decker found accounts and posts that supported the Taliban. One example is a Facebook page that said it was a grocery store, but in recent days it posted messages that supported the Taliban.

The laws of their home country and the countries where they do business are followed by these U.S. internet companies. They also try to learn from the rest of the world. But in the end, these are private businesses that have to make their own choices.

In January, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter decided that President Donald J. Trump’s words might cause more violence if they were shared loudly on their sites. When the government of India told Twitter to get rid of speech that some people thought was subversive but that others thought was important for free speech in a democracy, Twitter had to decide what to do. Myanmar’s military used Facebook to get rid of people from certain groups, and Facebook did nothing to stop them. This was more of a mistake than a plan.

In each case, unelected technology executives, mostly from the United States, had to make important decisions that affected citizens and elected leaders. And unlike governments, internet companies almost never have to answer to the public if people don’t like the decisions they make. People can’t vote Mark Zuckerberg out of office.

For a long time, American companies have tried, often in a bad way, to control what happens in other countries to protect their own interests. Media moguls have helped start wars and voted for candidates they like. U.S. Internet companies like Facebook, YouTube, and others feel like they are in a different place. So many people use their products that there isn’t much they can do about it. They have to act as diplomats, whether they like it or not.

I almost feel bad for the companies in the U.S. that run the Internet. They set out to improve the world, which they did. Now that they are so powerful, they have to make hard decisions in a world that isn’t perfect. What they did affects all of us.


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