Although it is imperative to point out that the Taliban does not respect international standards on human rights, including the right to free expression, their cynical jab at the social media giant exposes a fundamental hypocrisy in the dynamic between nation states and international technology companies.
This is not the first time that a social media company has been criticized for its content policies, and from constituencies with diametrically different views. In 2008, YouTube came under fire from then-senator Joseph Lieberman, who wrote to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, imploring him to ensure that YouTube was enforcing its own community standards against terrorism.
Not long after that, the senator began appealing to the company to remove content purportedly coming from none other than the Afghan Taliban.
It’s not hard to see how, in this current scenario, Facebook could easily end up removing critical speech against the Taliban from its platform — silencing the very people that it purports to protect.
When it comes to the Taliban, which is sanctioned by the Treasury Department, Facebook is in a tricky position—the company could potentially face substantial financial and legal penalties for hosting its members’ speech. Nevertheless, Facebook must enact the Board’s baseline recommendations for transparency and accountability.
Beyond the legal quandary facing the company, however, is a bigger question: When a group that some or even much of the world deems a terrorist organization takes power over the governance of a nation-state, who should have the ultimate say in whether that group has equal access to the world’s most popular platform?
The United States has long exerted military and diplomatic power over other nations’ politics, but today, American companies like Facebook have the power not only to silence foreign leaders, but domestic ones too—as we saw in January when Facebook booted Donald Trump from its platform. The idea that an unelected “leader” like Mark Zuckerberg should hold that much power should worry all of us.
This is why it is imperative that Facebook—and every other speech platform—listen to their users and global civil society and enact measures that ensure their decisions are transparent and accountable to users and the public.
*Header image caption: Taliban fighters take control of Afghan presidential palace after the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 15, 2021.