There has been considerable focus since the dawn of the SARS2 era at the close of 2019 on the manner in which algorithms appear to have been designed that freedom of speech gets impacted. While any celebration or incitement to violence, or degrading portrayals of those regarded by some prejudiced minds as the “other” would be natural candidates for the editorial spike, a multiplicity of instances in Big Tech social media platforms have occurred that appear to have much less justification for the chop. The Sunday Guardian is no stranger to the bite of the censor, with both this publication as well as the sister NewsX television channel having long back been banned in the Peoples Republic of China, a prohibition on viewership in the PRC that the Editor termed a “badge of honour”. On 31 July, a talk on the situation in Afghanistan given by the writer of this editorial at the US-based Council for Strategic Affairs (CSA) was removed by the platform as it “violated the guidelines of YouTube”. In the now censored talk, the Taliban was condemned for its medieval views and practices, especially on matters relating to the rights of women, children and religious moderates and minorities. Was it this criticism of the extremist group that an algorithm operated by YouTube found offensive? Or was it the sharply critical comments made on the role played by President Clinton in bringing the Taliban to power in Kabul in 1996? It could not have been the writer’s takedown of the manner in which President Trump genuflected before the Taliban, as Big Tech in the US loathes the 45th President of the US and fears that he may return as the 47th President in 2024. Could the reason for YouTube censoring of the CSA lecture on Afghanistan have been the somewhat less than flattering comments made during the talk on the manner in which President Biden followed his predecessor in kowtowing to the Taliban? This was through the same individual utilised by Trump, Zalmay Khalilzad, the same booster of the Taliban who played (together with US assistant secretary of state Robin Raphel) a similar role in 1996, the year the Taliban swept into Kabul. This writer may have his own share of arguably problematic views, but the record will show that he has long opposed “religious supremacy” as being as odious as race-based notions of supremacy, such as were championed by Adolf Hitler in his heyday. This writer has always defended the right to free speech and has warned against the banning of platforms such as YouTube, Twitter or Facebook despite the visible lack of neutrality of some. It was a surprise that a talk on the dangers posed by another extremist takeover of Afghanistan to the detriment of its people was apparently considered offensive by certain creators of the algorithms used by YouTube. Were these unseen, unknown individuals admirers of the Clintons or perhaps of President Biden, and were therefore alert in taking down any criticism of their idols? Were they in favour of the Taliban taking over Afghanistan rather than opposed to it in the manner that this writer has been since their first takeover of Afghanistan in 1996? Or were they unhappy that a citizen of a third world country with low per capita income had the temerity to suggest (that too, on a US-based platform) that the world’s most powerful country occasionally made mistakes on a Himalayan scale?

Friends have been as appalled as this longstanding backer of free speech and individual rights at the arbitrary and incomprehensible decision by YouTube to demand of the CSA that the video be removed for “non-compliance with its standards”. What these “standards” are should be made clear to all those who access YouTube. Is the objectionable part the criticism made of Clinton or Biden, or the proposition that US policymakers have made grievous errors during past decades and continue doing so? Or is it the writer’s consistent stance against religious supremacy, such as that showcased by the Taliban? Certainly, any definition of fair play would include the censored individual being given the reasons for the verdict of guilty given against him. YouTube has grievously harmed this writer’s right to freedom of speech. Such a guilty verdict and its attendant censorship should not pass without examination and comment, even if YouTube may block any criticism of itself and the strange causes its army of algorithm writers seem to champion or oppose while designing what ought to be a neutral platform. Was the reason purely mathematical, for example through multiple manufactured bots of a particular alliance of an authoritarian East Asian power with an extremist South Asian military spewing venom against the post, seeing that it goes against their desire to install the Taliban in power in Kabul the way that President Clinton and GHQ Rawalpindi ensured would happen in 1996? If so, should a platform headquartered in a democracy be so vulnerable to reflex censorship caused by targeted efforts by the social media warriors of powers hostile to modern, moderate societies? Norms that exclude the censoring of content without any explanation beyond stating without assigning any reason that a post is “not compliant” with standards” that are nowhere made clear, and for reasons that remain as hidden as much of state activity is in capitals such as Pyongyang. Surely YouTube can do better and must if it is to retain the loyalty of hundreds of millions who believe in freedom from arbitrary action that curbs the right of free speech.

MDN