Millions of people rely on Facebook to connect. The blackout left them stranded.
But in 2016, the program (now renamed Free Basics) was banned by India’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, which claimed it violated net neutrality. Despite this setback, it continued to expand, with less fanfare, to other countries in the developing world. In 2018, Facebook said Internet.org put 100 million people online. In 2019, FreeBasics was available in 65 countries, including around 30 in Africa. Last year, the company started rolling out Facebook Discover, which allows internet users to access low-bandwidth traffic for all websites (not just Facebook properties) even if they are strapped for data.
Versions of these programs also exist in Afghanistan, where many new Internet users equate Facebook, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp with the whole Internet. Even among those with broader access to the full web, Facebook’s suite of products plays a vital role. WhatsApp calls, for example, have long replaced the more expensive and less secure phone calls around the world. Around the world, many small businesses rely on Facebook’s tools to sell and advertise their products.
All of this means that even temporary blackouts have a big impact, both for advocacy organizations, like ad hoc groups helping Afghans flee the country, and vulnerable people who are already isolated, like Afghans in hiding. , fearing retaliation from the Taliban, and awaiting news, often via Whatsapp, for updates.
They “are already incredibly tired and anxious. Losing the link with each other and with trusted allies in the outside world is … devastating,” says Ruchi Kumar, an Indian journalist based in Istanbul (and MIT Technology Review contributor) who is also involved in the Afghan evacuation efforts. “Some are on the verge of suicide, given the deaths and violence they witnessed in the past month.” The unexplained breakdown of their primary channel of communication with the outside world has compounded the desperation, uncertainty and feelings of abandonment. Losing a chance to escape, meanwhile, “is literally life or death.”
It was past midnight for Kumar and Bezhan when Facebook started to come to life, but even then some of its features, including search and notifications, were not yet available. Bezhan had yet to hear if she could add this additional name for the evacuation.
But she was also worried that her Afghan friends might jump to conclusions about the cause of the blackout. For weeks since the fall of Kabul, rumors had circulated that the Taliban had cut off internet access. “I bet they create rumors and make up stories about how the new government is blocking the media,” she said.
They wouldn’t be alone. Responding to similar concerns, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Communication of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country known for government-induced internet shutdowns, took to twitter to set the record straight: “The Internet connection has not been cut,” he wrote at 4:05 pm ET. “It’s a global blackout crippling WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram. Other apps like Twitter are working normally. The rest of the web is the same.
This story has been updated with details from Kumar on the impact of the blackout.