Fears loom over control of Afghanistan’s internet

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As the Taliban tighten their grip over Afghanistan, the militant group is setting its sights on a new target for conquest: the internet and the digital infrastructure which, for the past two decades, has allowed many Afghans access to free information.

Now that Taliban officials are taking over the state services and agencies in Kabul, the country's capital, it's unclear how the new regime will go about controlling internet access, and whether it will hunt for political dissidents and crack down on freedom of speech and expression online.

The Taliban has long abandoned its initial objections to the internet as a whole. The Islamist group has adopted a tech-savvy social media strategy that it heavily relied on as the U.S. began withdrawing from the country.

But former officials fear the Taliban won't allow others to use the internet same way they have been doing.

“The internet is under threat in Afghanistan,” said Mohammad Najeeb Azizi, a former chairman of the Afghanistan Telecom Regulatory Authority (ATRA). The Taliban is “eager to use the internet in their own favor. But at the same time it will be the preference for them not to allow [political opponents] to disseminate information in the future.”

While access to the internet remains relatively open in Afghanistan, the Taliban takeover has already made citizens conscious of their digital presence. Many Afghans have rushed to scrub or delete social media profiles and online content that could link them to the former regime or NATO forces, fearing such connections could endanger them with the Taliban.

On Wednesday dozens of digital rights NGOs called on international organizations and private vendors to shut down or fully secure biometric databases that contain retina or fingerprint scans. Some are already in the hands of the Taliban, the NGOs said in an open letter, and could allow the new leaders to set up surveillance programs and track down targets.

Beyond the Taliban's initial online sweep for collaborators, there are longer term concerns. While the group is unlikely to cut internet cables as it often did when it was last in power in the 90s, it could seek to censor content, cut off access for certain groups or regions, or intimidate foreign telecoms companies that largely operate Afghanistan's network. On Monday, Taliban officials met with ATRA, the Afghan telecoms regulator, as they impose control over all organs of state power.

“They don't want to the internet to go away, but sooner rather than later they'll try to make clear that they're the new sheriff in town, that they're in charge of all decisions in the telecoms sector and space,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia policy director at digital rights group Access Now.

But running a sophisticated social media operation does not mean the Taliban has experience in drawing up a censorship regime. The new regime would have a hard time establishing China-style controls on online information, Chima said, but it can take more targeted actions like cutting internet access in strategic places or mandating internet service providers to impose limits on accessing parts of the internet — mimicking policies by other states in the Gulf, Iran, Myanmar and elsewhere.

For Afghan citizens, there is also another immediate concern. When the Taliban takes control of the country's telecoms infrastructure, they could disrupt internet access to certain groups such as diplomats, NGOs and the media, or obtain information about who is applying for exit visas.

“In the next few weeks these telcos will come under pressure for access to data records, messaging logs and more,” said Chima, adding that telecoms companies would have to prepare for the Taliban seeking to obtain control over their data.

Telecoms sector's foreign pull

Over the past two decades investment by foreign governments, namely the United States via its USAID program and the World Bank via its IDA program, helped to kickstart Afghanistan's digital infrastructure.

It expanded internet services and mobile connections in many parts of the country and allowed for the emergence of a fledgling internet economy, with startups and online services being lauded as the country's economic future.

Initially, internet service was managed by the state-owned operator Afghan Telecom, which rolled out 2G and 3G networks in major deals with Chinese vendor ZTE.

But the country has started opening up to private telecom players since the mid-2010s. Operators like South Africa's MTM Group and the United Arab Emirates' Etisalat Group have invested and built up networks, while Sweden's Telia — which for years held an investment in local operator Roshan — sold its stake only in 2020.

MTM Group, Etisalat, Afghan Telecom and Roshan did not respond to requests for comment.

For Azizi, who led the country's telecoms regulator from 2015 to 2019 and now works with the U.N.'s International Telecommunications Union (ITU), continued reliance on foreign telecom operators could put a damper on the Taliban's hopes of controlling the internet: Outside interests could “have leverage to demand some sort of respect toward freedom and respect for human rights … when things become more serious, when we realize that censorship is coming,” he said.

Even so, Etisalat, a significant player, also has experience imposing censorship in its home country, the UAE.

Another risk for Afghans hoping to stay connected is how long operators will wish to maintain their networks in the face of the Taliban's threats, or even vandalism. In June, the Taliban targeted dozens of antennas for destruction, leaving many Afghans without internet connectivity.

For some companies, the solution could be to follow the Americans — and simply leave Afghanistan. Last week, MTM Group said it was “evaluating our options to exit Afghanistan” and Yemen. The group, a crucial provider in Afghanistan with more than 6.3 million subscribers, has been scaling down operations outside of Africa since last year.

As telecoms companies consider pulling out of Afghanistan, rights workers said they still have a duty to defend Afghan rights. “They have a duty under international law to try and mitigate human rights harms,” said Chima.

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