Key services could also disappear from Afghanistan due to international sanctions, Madory warns. The centralization of the Internet in the hands of a small number of service providers – most of which are based in the US – means that everything from cloud servers to social media could go awry if the US decided to act on the threat of sanctions against Afghanistan. (It has already frozen $ 9.5 billion (£ 6.4 billion) of assets held by the Afghan central bank.)
Madory helped develop a list of IP addresses from Syria, North Korea and Sudan, from which inbound traffic to Oracle’s cloud services was blocked while working in the company. But whether that would happen to Afghanistan’s 327,000 IP addresses is up for debate. “Throughout this area of sanctions, there has been a movement to exclude telecommunications because it does not really affect the right people,” he says. It punishes the daily users, while it hardly affects those responsible.
Not that it can take international action to severely restrict Internet access to Afghans. “Bad connection may be further attacked in case of an emergency, [such as] riots, protests and possible future elections, ”said Pavlina Pavlova, a consultant for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitors human rights and cyber security.
“The Taliban has a history of targeting telecommunications infrastructure and later mobile phone towers, forcing mobile carriers to close or limit their coverage,” Pavlova adds. “Now that it’s in power, it can control ISPs and force them to close the connection.” The Taliban have already reportedly shut down Internet and telephone services in the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul, the last location in the country they have not taken over. (The Taliban claim to have gained control of the area from September 6, although the rebel leader with surveillance of the area disagrees).
Such internet shutdowns would be harmful to Afghans, restrict their ability to access and share reliable information and put them at higher risk of misinformation – which could lead them to engage in what Pavlova calls “ill-informed actions”. This has been seen in the report on the evacuation of Afghanistan, where journalists encountered Afghans gathered around the airport after hearing rumors circulating online that they would be allowed to leave the country.
“There are a whole lot of different issues here,” says Andrew Sullivan of the Internet Society, an advocacy group that promotes good maintenance of Internet infrastructure. The first problem is that Afghanistan’s internet is not up to par with most other countries worldwide. “While it’s not terrible, it’s not very connected and does not have the various networks that make the Internet robust to errors,” he says.