WhatsApp Has Blocked the Taliban's Helpline

Facebook 'respects the authority of the international community.'
Brad Bergan
WhatsApp's smartphone icon.Alexander Shatov / Unsplash

Facebook wants to block the Taliban.

And WhatsApp succeeded in blocking helpline channels, in addition to a handful of other groups from its Facebook-owned service, according to an initial report from The Next Web.

This is arguably the most significant political move from social media companies since former President Trump was banned after the Capitol Hill ordeal.

Facebook's WhatsApp moving in line with US political sanctions

In the last several days, the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan's capital city, Kabul, toppling the incumbent regime. Understandably, the area is experiencing serious unrest as Western allies and residents of means flee the country. Amid the chaos, the Taliban created a helpline on WhatsApp to enable citizens a means of filing complaints about violence, looting, or other miscellaneous threats to basic security. And the militant group has done this before, according to a Financial Times report, in which Facebook said it had blocked "official Taliban channels," and continues to seek group names and descriptions that may identify similar groups popping up. Additionally, the company is working with local language speakers to comb through these groups, since WhatsApp can't directly surveil messages that are transmitted via the platform's end-to-end encryption.

This comes on the heels of the social network facing mounting pressure from international authorities for not blocking all Taliban accounts as the militant group regained control of the capital (and most of the country). But the platform is now actively blocking and removing accounts, even if they are self-labeled as official accounts of the Taliban, which constitutes a whole-sale digital sanction. Facebook also said it doesn't take "decisions about the recognized government in any particular country but instead respects the authority of the international community," in an AFP report. And this statement is an attempt on behalf of Facebook to position itself in line with U.S. sanction laws, despite its ostensible indifference to political pressure, according to The Next Web.

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Increasing social media bans could set a precedent for future policies

"After banning President Trump, it's these companies' first test in terms of how they're actually going to be applying their rules internationally," said a former Director of Public Policy at Facebook Katie Harbath, who is presently a fellow of the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Atlantic Council, in a report from Vox. "It's not a perfect comparison — nothing ever is going to be — but I think it raises a lot of different questions of how these types of policies will be implemented in these tricky parts of the world."

However, on the subject of Facebook and free speech, a Taliban spokesperson complained about the company, arguing that it restricted not only the group's free speech, but potentially in general. This came hours after a tweet from a New York Times reporter Sheera Frenkel said that their report of Facebook and YouTube accounts allegedly linked to the Taliban was answered with the removal of these accounts, about which the Taliban spokesperson may have referenced. "[I]f we find an account believed to be owned and operated by the Afghan Taliban, we terminate it," said a YouTube spokesperson in the Vox report. "Further, our policies prohibit content that incites violence."

Yesterday, it was thought that Facebook's WhatsApp couldn't ban accounts linked to Taliban activity, since the messages were encoded. The obvious way around this is to work with residents in Kabul to identify which accounts are connected with the militant group. But from a broader understanding, where tech and politics overlap, we're witnessing the employment of corporate-to-consumer collaboration to override end-to-end encryption, so that bans to accounts deemed harmful to the general public aren't limited to the modern public square of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, but can press further into encrypted platforms. Whether the means of removing these accounts (and thus their digital free speech, influence, and voice) is justified by the goal of protecting the people of Afghanistan from Taliban's messages remains to be seen. One thing's for sure: We might generally agree that the Taliban could do real harm to its new constituents, but social media companies' tightening political stance could serve as a new precedent for similar campaigns, much closer to home.

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