But in 2016, the program (by now renamed Free Basics), was banned by India’s Telecom Regulatory Authority, which claimed that it violated net neutrality. Despite that setback, it has continued to roll out, with less fanfare, to other countries in the developing world. In 2018, Facebook said Internet.org had got 100 million people online. In 2019, FreeBasics was available in 65 countries, with around 30 in Africa. Last year, the firm began rolling out Facebook Discover, which allows internet users to access low-bandwidth traffic to all websites (not just Facebook properties,) even if they’ve run out of 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 who have broader access to the full web, Facebook’s suite of products still played a vital role. WhatsApp calls, for example, having long since replaced more expensive—and less secure—phone calls. Many small businesses rely on Facebook’s tools to sell and advertise their products.
All of this means that even temporary outages have a devastating effect, especially for activist and advocacy organizations—and people like Bezhan.
“A lot of underground planning and support is happening on social media,” says Bezhan, and much of this was via Facebook, WhatsApp, and the Messenger app. The outage interrupted her “efforts to provide Afghans with information, planning strategies on our next steps for evacuations, [and] connecting those in need.”
It was past midnight for Bezhan when Facebook began coming back to life, but even then, some of its functionalities, including search and notifications, were not yet available. She hadn’t heard back yet about whether she could add another name for a potential evacuation.
But she was also concerned about what her Afghan friends were feeling and thinking, with their main connection to the outside world suddenly severed. For weeks since the fall of Kabul, there had been rumors that the Taliban had cut access to the internet. “I bet they are creating rumors and coming up with stories about how the new government is blocking the media,” she says.
They wouldn’t be alone. Responding to similar concerns, a spokesperson for the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Ministry of Communication, took to Twitter to set the record straight: “The internet connection has not been cut,” he wrote at 4:05PM ET. “It is a global blackout crippling WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram. Other applications like Twitter are functioning normally. The same goes for the rest of the web.”