In late June, an alarm went up on free speech and tech geek forums:
“Yet another country has decided to shut down key parts of the internet,” wrote the Electronic Frontier Foundation in a post on the matter.
That Afghanistan might take this step isn’t entirely implausible.
Neighboring Pakistan has at times shut down access to Facebook and other sites deemed to have “un-Islamic” content, and a growing number of countries have been extending censorship of the Internet, from Turkey to China.
Afghanistan’s Constitution says no law can violate the tenets and beliefs of Islam. And the country has had a lightly enforced regulation banning pornography and gambling websites here for the better part of a year.
But in this instance, Afghan Internet service provider executives say Facebook and its ilk are safe, and that no regulation banning the sites has been passed. “Social networking is not prohibited,” wrote Aziz Popal, an executive at Ariana Network Service, an Afghan Internet service provider, in an e-mail. “I had full attendance at all meetings about Web filtering.”
An e-mail from his company to customers, however, is probably what started the rumor. On June 24, the company e-mailed at least some customers saying that “per instructions by the Afghan Ministry of Communications, all Internet service providers are hereby mandated to begin” filtering out websites related to alcohol, dating, social networking, gambling, and pornography.
Mr. Popal indicated that was an error on the part of his company.
Visits to three Internet cafes recently found that the Internet is working normally, and that even access to pornographic websites is possible – which means the Internet here is more free than in many countries.
Another telecommunications executive, who asked not to be named, said that while the government wants gambling and pornographic websites blocked (and that’s a restriction that a majority of Afghan’s would wholeheartedly back) it doesn’t have the monitoring or technical resources to make it happen.
“We haven’t heard anything about new restrictions,” said a clerk at an Internet cafe in downtown Kabul. “The government passes a lot of regulations for show, but then doesn’t do much to enforce them.”
Nevertheless, the government has been stepping up its efforts against “un-Islamic” activities recently.
A number of local restaurants In Kabul popular with foreigners here have pulled alcohol from their shelves recently after warnings from the government (alcohol is illegal here, but it’s been widely available and tolerated in establishments that restrict themselves to a foreign clientele), and Internet executives say they expect, eventually, for the government to find a way to put pornography and gambling websites off limits.
"How do they think they're going to censor the Internet," ask Nader Khan, a young man who said he goes online every day at an Internet cafe in Kabul's upscale City Center mall. "I haven't noticed any change."
For now, the censorship effort appears hamfisted and ad hoc.
A friend of mine was at an Internet cafe in central Kabul a few weeks ago when the owners were installing filtering software of their own at the request of the Ministry of Communications. The Internet there slowed to a crawl, and lots of websites with inoffensive content were blocked.
The cafe quietly removed the filters after a few days.
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