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Digital oppression in Afghanistan

With the crisis unfolding in Afghanistan, the internet will have a huge role to play in the country’s future. There is reason to believe that it may become a tool of oppression in the hands of the Taliban, facilitating mass surveillance. So what’s next for Afghanistan? And will people still be able to go online safely?

Digital oppression in Afghanistan

What is happening in Afghanistan?

After a 20 year conflict, The Taliban have taken control of Afghanistan. Western troops are withdrawing from the country, and a new regime is in power.

At the time of writing, a great deal is still uncertain. The Taliban are claiming that they will protect human rights and issue an amnesty to all those who fought and worked against them. However, observers inside and outside the country are unconvinced. There are already reports of Taliban fighters going door-to-door, looking for former government employees.

Many things have changed since the last time the Taliban were in power. One of the major differences now is the country’s widespread internet use. Could the internet become a tool of suppression and surveillance?

The internet as an authoritarian tool

For years, Afghanistan has been moving towards a more digitized approach to record-keeping, voting, and general administration. This now poses a problem: the bigger an individual’s digital footprint, the easier it will be for the Taliban to find and persecute them.

Interpreters, women’s rights activists, former government employees, and members of the Afghan military could all be at risk, along with anyone else in a vulnerable or threatened social group. As a result, there’s been a rush in recent days to remove personal data from the internet, including biometrics (fingerprints, facial information, etc).

The Taliban were using biometric databases to locate targets half a decade ago, when they weren’t in power. Now, having taken control of the capital Kabul, it’s likely that they’ll employ similar techniques on a much larger scale.

Will the Taliban shut down the internet?

The Taliban will now have control over Afghanistan’s internet service providers (ISPs). This will allow them to monitor people’s online activities, and restrict certain websites.

We’ve seen this many times before, following social upheaval, violent regime changes, and military coups. Limiting or even shutting down the internet completely prevents communication and free speech. It stops people from sharing news or organizing protests.

For examples of how this works in practice, we need only revisit some of the previous instances of oppressive governments shutting down internet access.

Authoritarian regimes and the internet

  • Belarus, 2020. Following mass protests against an election many thought was rigged, the Belarus regime was accused of blocking app stores, communication services, and news sites, and even shutting down the internet entirely.
  • Uganda, 2021. On the eve of an election, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni launched a full internet shutdown. Officials claimed this was to prevent the spread of misinformation, but outside observers agree that the regime was simply trying to cover up foul play in the election.
  • Myanmar, 2021. The military coup in Myanmar in early 2021 was followed by intense internet monitoring and restrictions. Reports suggested that ISPs had secretly been forced to install spyware in their systems, which later allowed the new regime to clamp down on dissent and online protest coordination.
  • Ethiopia, 2021. Much like the Ugandan government, authorities in Ethiopia restricted internet freedom during the run-up to a potentially rigged election. Because most of the internet in the country comes through one provider, it wasn’t hard for the government to shut down connectivity completely.

How to combat internet restrictions

We’re still waiting to see what form restrictions will take in Afghanistan, but if the Talian follow the example of other oppressive regimes around the world, it seems very likely that internet restrictions will be imposed.

If you’re in Afghanistan, using a VPN while connected to the internet will allow you to get online with a greater level of security, and to bypass many local blocks.

If you’re going to use a VPN, however, we urge you to choose a secure, premium option. Free VPNs, compared to paid ones, are significantly less trustworthy in providing a secure and reliable connection. Using NordVPN, on the other hand, comes with high-quality encryption and a range of other features:

  • Our Kill Switch immediately cuts your internet connection if your connection to the VPN server goes down. This will prevent your data from being exposed.
  • Using an obfuscated server can hide the fact that you’re routing your traffic through a VPN and help you to bypass various VPN blocks.
  • Our Double VPN feature provides you with an additional layer of encryption, which is especially useful in high-risk areas. Even if your ISP is under government control, your data should still remain private.