In 2004, while Mark Zuckerberg was in his Harvard dorm, where, according to legend, he conceived of the now ubiquitous social network Facebook, Afghanistan was holding its first national elections since 1969, in what was perceived as a symbolic victory for the U.S. War on Terror and a justification for its recent invasion. It is difficult to understand how inextricably linked the fate of human rights and governance in Afghanistan and networking platforms like Facebook would become, but the realities of Afghanistan in 2021 have made this connection painfully clear. Unfortunately, much popular understanding around the role of the internet, emerging technologies, and information and communication technologies (ICTs) in Afghanistan has remained, in many circles, suspended in time around the 2001 period. Sloppy designations of the newly empowered “Taliban 2.0” and supposed shock at seeing the group’s leaders use Apple watches or get on Twitter do not inspire confidence in a foreign policy that takes into account the immense power that such tools have held and will hold for any hope of just governance or material safety for the people of Afghanistan. This is especially true for its most vulnerable: women, the LGBTQ population, displaced people, ethnic and religious minorities, the rural poor, and refugees and asylum seekers abroad, most of whom are doubly reliant upon networked communications for accessing humanitarian aid, education, work, communication, and survival. Like the rest of the world during the past 20 years, Afghanistan has lived much of its life online and via networked technology; a multifaceted understanding of how digital rights are foundational to protecting Afghans in the face of an uncertain future must be key to any humanitarian or policy strategy undertaken by the U.S. or the international community.
Reliance on the digital realm: 20 years of evidence
As in many parts of the world, particularly those in which civil infrastructure and governance are vulnerable or contested, ICTs have come to play a key role in political, economic, and social life in Afghanistan. 3G internet services were first introduced in 2012, with the number of internet users online and participating in social media in particular increasing from 0.1% in 2004 to more than 10% in 2018. Meanwhile, overall internet penetration in the country rose by an astonishing 13% between 2020 and 2021, standing in January 2021 at a reported 22% of the population. The drastic increase in the past few years tracks with ongoing developments across the region, and is almost certainly connected to a spike in demand for internet enabled communication and commerce services as a result of the social distancing of the COVID-19 pandemic. As in most parts of the world, the online space and the mobile technologies on which most people access it are increasingly critical to journalism and freedom of information, particularly in rural areas where limited infrastructure makes connectivity difficult, as well as education, especially as more students have been forced to learn remotely, if they have the ability. Finally, as in many other countries, ICTs and social media in particular have been vital sites of solidarity for vulnerable groups in Afghanistan, including LGBTQ communities, refugees, and women — many of whom now fear retribution as a result of the exploitation of ill-protected information they shared on those platforms. In short, an attentiveness to the particular vulnerabilities and securities presented by ICTs in Afghanistan, as well as the compounding effect that they can have on the well-being of Afghans, must be a part of any efforts to protect and support civilians in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal. By understanding the interconnected rights of Afghans to both access and privacy, policymakers and the international community will be able to more effectively and concretely support local efforts to protect Afghanistan’s most vulnerable during an uncertain transition period.
Access: Bringing information to the forefront
Protecting and supporting Afghans, particularly those who are facing credible fear of retaliation as a result of their work with international NGOs or armed forces, will require an informed and realistic approach toward the international right to information access. This will also require a re-evaluation of how the rights-based approach to human security and protection of the vulnerable has often failed the very people it purports to protect, centering international donors and employees over locally based expertise and the reality of lived experience. This was made starkly clear during the hectic and nightmarish period following the U.S. withdrawal from Kabul and the ensuing takeover of the Taliban, during which time social media-enabled dispatches from locally based activists and NGOs, as well as Afghans in the diaspora, were suddenly and finally at the center of international conversations about the country and its fleeing refugees — perhaps, sadly, too late. In any case, a reality-based approach to human security for Afghans following the Taliban takeover must pay close attention to how the issue of information access intersects with protection of lives. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights outlines the right of Afghans to unrestricted access to information and the internet, and although such ringing principles can sound hollow in the light of their repeated flaunting, including, in some cases, by the U.S. itself, an integrated approach to protecting Afghans in increasingly grim conditions under the Taliban should keep the right to information access at its core.
Afghanistan went from six domestic ASNs, or satellite providers, in 2011, to 40 by 2021. This rapid growth exemplifies the exponentially interconnected nature of the digital realm with daily life in the country, especially over the past decade, and its varied internet topography, with differing regional and rural connectivity, also means that shutdowns or disconnection by a central authority would likely be difficult. In a series of evaluations conducted in 2012 by experts ranking the comparative risk of internet shutdowns or disconnection across the world in, Afghanistan was rated “low risk,” illustrating how its geographically fragmented network and mountainous terrain meant that a unified shutdown would actually be quite difficult to pull off. However, the risks to potential disruptions in access are very real, particularly amid the uncertainty and dread following the U.S. withdrawal, and the ensuing mystery over how governance will look in this new era. The risk of violence, destruction, or takeover of resources like ICT infrastructure, and the hesitance of some private partners to do business in the country or to service Afghanistan’s telecoms infrastructure under Taliban rule are all vulnerabilities to its future connectivity, as assessments from 2021 have noted. Meanwhile, reports of confirmed internet blackouts in provinces like Panjshir, the site of some resistance leaders, are troubling, particularly in light of the fact that the blackout is probably at least partially aimed at stopping evidence of the region’s humanitarian crisis from reaching the rest of the world. In other words, policymakers should keep a close eye on the status of internet access in Afghanistan as a potential barometer for the status of human rights and well-being under the Taliban’s governance, especially as the group moves to establish its presence in cyberspace, including by meeting with telecoms regulators to establish potential new censorship or access regimes.
Privacy: Securing the most insecure
As the Taliban moved to consolidate their control over more and more regions of Afghanistan, many Afghans, particularly those whose livelihoods or personal status would make them a target for the group, began frantically deleting or editing their social media accounts or online presences, knowing that the Taliban would almost certainly follow a regional trend of social media surveillance to consolidate power over perceived dissenters. The previous U.S.-backed government had flirted with similar tactics, periodically ordering shutdowns of messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram in the country, while the Taliban have been known to leverage use of social media for narrative control and surveillance. In other words, many Afghans are aware through painful experience that their right to digital privacy is not, and perhaps never has been, guaranteed. The onus, it seems, is still largely on the private companies, including LinkedIn, Facebook and its subsidiaries Instagram and WhatsApp, and Twitter, among others, to continue to proactively work to protect the online profiles of Afghans who are likely to be targets of the Taliban because of their affiliation with the U.S. occupation, journalistic outlets, or international aid organizations. The horrific realities of digital optimism curdled into dread and the threat of retribution make clear that such companies are long past due to acknowledge the role they play in arbitrating the survival of the world’s most vulnerable, including in Afghanistan, and to build protection into their platforms from the beginning, rather than scrambling when real harms present themselves.
It is also the case that communications technologies and the digital rights they imbue — or threaten — are of extra significance to people whose legal or citizenship status is unsettled, including refugees and internally displaced people. Afghans have long made up one of the world’s largest refugee populations, with the UNHCR estimating that there are at least 2.6 million registered Afghan refugees around the world, and another 3.5 million internally displaced people who have fled their homes within the country for another region. Afghanistan’s ongoing crises of governance, climate insecurity, and economic instability, exacerbated by the U.S. invasion and the scourge of COVID-19, mean that the country is likely to continue to be a source of many refugees and asylum seekers. Digital rights, including access to safe and private mobile communications and internet access, will continue to be critically important to displaced Afghans, particularly as many rely on digital forms of identification and communication while crossing borders, and as a great number cross into countries like Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan, all of which are signaling a renewed and troubling unwillingness to accept refugees, and which are each known to be repeat violators of digital and privacy rights. More broadly, as more and more Afghans continue to flee outside of the nation’s borders, seeking protection, the humanitarian sector has continued to grapple with its use of biometric identification data, including iris scans and fingerprints, which are often used with the justification of preventing potential fraud, but which are also often chillingly unreliable. In addition, as revelations come to light about the massive privacy breaches of personally identifiable data on Afghans by the U.S. and its contractors, as well as the biometric databases and tools that have fallen into the hands of the Taliban, a reckoning is overdue for addressing how such privacy breaches have been normalized by the international humanitarian and military sectors. The humanity and privacy of Afghan refugees and civilians must be factored into any international response or protection efforts. This is quite literally a matter of survival.
Recommendations and next steps
The digital rights community, although relatively young, has long made the case that rights online and in the information realm cannot be thought of as separate from rights in the physical realm; the two reflect one another. The tragic and urgent case of Afghanistan, and the decisions made by international actors that consistently deprioritized or disregarded the security and well-being of everyday Afghans, have brought this lesson home. Addressing this should start with a more open conversation about the role of digital rights in Afghanistan’s political and economic future, regardless of who is governing, as well as the direct role played by the U.S. and its private sector. Internet providers should continue to work with the international community to guarantee broadband access for civilians, particularly those living in rural areas, and to discuss the contingency of international aid on guarantees to allow for unrestricted and uncensored access. The humanitarian and education sectors should prioritize working to increase internet access for students, in particular, especially women and girls, whose educational access remains under threat. Finally, the U.S. must work to address the threat to the lives of Afghans who aided U.S. forces from sloppy and unprotected use of stored personal data, while the humanitarian sector continues to collaborate with local civil society organizations and activists to spread awareness of digital hygiene and protection measures for all. As the world watches to see how the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan will unfold, the conversation about digital rights for Afghans in every context must come sooner, rather than later.
Eliza Campbell is the director of the MEI Cyber Program. The views expressed in this piece are her own.
Photo by Oliver Weiken/picture alliance via Getty Images