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Is the Taliban Poised for an Internet Crackdown?
TIP: Reports have been steadily coming in regarding the Taliban’s desire to restrict Afghan citizens’ access to the internet. Recent, credible reports state that China is providing equipment, software, and technical expertise to assist the Taliban with censoring the internet in the country.
The honeymoon may be over for internet users in Afghanistan. As previously reported in Whispers 002, the new Taliban regime has adopted a more moderate internet and technology policy than their 1990s regime. Unfortunately, they now appear to be poised for a crackdown. Although a full internet ban is unlikely, significant restrictions and censorship are expected to be instituted in the coming weeks.
One clear sign of this was the recent ban on BBC, Voice of America, and Deutsche Welle broadcasts on Afghan television stations. Prior to the ban, the Taliban claimed to have communicated with the targeted organizations and provided a list of content they wanted banned. The majority of it was purportedly critical of the regime, portraying morals contrary to Islamic law, or taking issue with women’s rights under the Taliban.
To date, the Taliban have already successfully curtailed many local and national press outlets. The new embargo on foreign news, particularly outlets produced by western media organizations, is a sign of the Taliban’s intent to further stifle free speech.
The next phase appears to include throttling the internet. Not only is it the next logical step in cracking down on dissent, but there is clear evidence that the Taliban are proactively building up their capacity to both track and restrict internet usage.
Chinese technicians arrived in Kabul with equipment packed in hardened cases and a team of experts to brief representatives of several ministries on the capabilities their software and hardware can provide to the regime. It is believed their services have been offered as a government-to-government exchange and donated as an act of goodwill between the countries. The personnel on the technical team are said to be from China’s Ministry of Public Security and have actively worked on China’s Golden Shield Project, also known as the Great Firewall of China. A representative of China’s main search engine, Baidu, is also thought to be traveling with the contingent.
According to sources, the Taliban first requested Chinese assistance months ago. The Taliban foresaw a need to get control of the internet, but moderates were concerned it would hamper humanitarian aid and efforts to obtain international recognition, stifle the badly needed economic recovery, and be unacceptable to both younger members of the regime and citizens, given the reliance many Afghans had developed on the internet over the last two decades.
These were all valid concerns. Although limiting internet access allows the Taliban to stamp out voices of dissent, it also has many negative ramifications. This reasoning allowed more moderate Taliban to prevail in this area for the last eight months. So why the change of course?
Several reasons could explain why they are now pursuing this course of action:
The increased conservatism appears to be part of a larger trend as more hardline Taliban assert their power. This has been reflected in rules around girls’ schooling, further limitations on women’s mobility, deepened gender segregation, strict limitations on university students, and the media crackdown.
The international condemnation received over the recent decision to ban female students from attending grades 7-12 education may have tempered beliefs that international recognition would be forthcoming.
Opposition groups are now actively promoting an anti-Taliban agenda on social media and appear to be growing their audiences, increasing the threat the internet poses to the Taliban. Furthermore, the Taliban have consistently been outmaneuvered on social media by opposition groups, activists, and journalists.
China’s offer of technological assistance may have been self-serving and tied to the recently announced economic compacts between the Taliban and China. China, although not militarily at odds with the Taliban, has expressed concerns over their historical ties to terrorists. Having a big hand in setting up the new Afghan internet would allow them to monitor the activity of the Taliban and possibly internet users in Afghanistan.
It is not yet clear what internet access might look like in Afghanistan following restrictions. Social media and messaging applications will certainly be under scrutiny or banned. We believe restrictions will roll out over time, and censorship will be increased gradually—not because the intent is not there, but due to a lack of capacity.
The world was surprised the Taliban did not immediately ban the internet after coming into power. It now seems that the Taliban wanted to present a new face to the world and strategically decided to be moderate where they could. Implementing universally draconian measures from day one would have irrevocably damaged their regional and international diplomacy campaign.
However, at this point the Taliban are facing increasingly active challenges from various opposition groups. Despite their assurances that they are maintaining complete control of the country, firefights and attacks are picking up in frequency and effectiveness. Adding to the Taliban’s urgency, opposition groups appear to be more effective than the Taliban at online information campaigns. As a result, the Taliban are first and foremost attempting to interdict negative press and disrupt online coordination of armed opposition. How effective that will be remains to be seen.
In some ways, reducing internet access is a logical step for an authoritarian, oppressive regime. They have more control of the narrative this way. More nuanced restrictions mean senior Taliban would be able to continue internet use as desired and utilize technology as an effective public communication tool, while simultaneously cutting off public access and dramatically reducing international accountability by stopping the current outpouring of videos, images, and stories exposing the Taliban’s abuses and shortcomings. Additionally, internet access could be narrowly used by the Taliban for economic benefit, while opposition groups are prevented from easily coordinating.
However, the Afghan public could still respond dramatically to being cut off from the outside world in this manner, as many “new guard” Taliban have warned. Mass protests may result, and violence could be forthcoming.
Groups involved in evacuation efforts should be prepared to implement secondary communication plans in the event social media and messaging apps are disrupted.
One way to manage these restrictions is obtaining email addresses for Afghans stuck in-country as email communications may be one of the last methods disrupted.