On the first day of November 2017, with no warning, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Information and Technology ordered Internet service providers to block the messaging apps WhatsApp and Telegram for a 20-day test ban. The restriction was felt almost immediately when the following day a state-owned telecommunications company enacted the ban, cutting countless people off from the popular platforms.
The government cited vague “security reasons” for the ban, but citizens were unconvinced. They saw the move as censorship and feared the ban could be extended to other platforms, such as Facebook. It was rumored but not confirmed that the intention was to stop the Taliban’s use of end-to-end encryption of chats, a security feature of both apps that benefits all users.
The government was met with a swift and vocal public backlash, most notably on Facebook. Within days the ban was repealed and access to both messaging apps was restored for all citizens. In an attempt to address public fears, the government cited the Afghan constitution’s guarantee of free speech in its announcement of the reversal of the ban.
Kabul-based journalist Ezzatullah Mehrdad says the government usually exercises only limited control over social media and the Internet, and believes the ban failed as a result of a key factor: Afghans consider freedom of speech a red line not to be crossed. “A united public, sensitive to free access to the Internet, pushed back the Afghan government,” says Mehrdad.
Afghanistan is not alone in wanting to restrict or closely monitor its residents’ use of messaging apps. In 2016, Freedom House identified the targeting of encrypted voice communication and messaging apps by governments as a new trend in censorship around the world and counted at least 12 countries that blocked either all of WhatsApp or certain features that year.
The response of Afghan civil society is an example of successful resistance to these sorts of attempts to curtail speech and access to communication technology. As governments continue to experiment with ways to limit access to popular online communication, the success of countering those efforts has a profound impact on the health of the Internet.
When Citizens Rejected a Ban on WhatsApp and Telegram, Afghan Officials Backed Down, Global Voices, 2017