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 put 100 million people online. In 2019, FreeBasics was available in 65 countries, around 30 of them 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 play a vital role. WhatsApp calls, for example, have long since replaced more expensive—and less secure—phone calls globally. Around the world, many small businesses rely on Facebook’s tools to sell and advertise their products.
All of this means that even temporary outages have a big effect, both for advocacy organizations, like the ad hoc groups helping Afghans escape the country, and the vulnerable individuals that are already isolated, like the Afghans in hiding, afraid of Taliban retribution, and waiting for news—often via Whatsapp—for updates.
They “are already incredibly fatigued and anxious. Losing connection with each other and with trusted allies in the outside world is… devastating” says Ruchi Kumar, an Istanbul-based Indian journalist (and MIT Technology Review contributor) who is also involved in Afghan evacuation efforts. “A number are on the verge of suicide, given the deaths and violence they’ve been witnessing this past month.” The unexplained outage of their primary channel of communication with the outside world compounded the despair, uncertainty, and feelings of abandonment. Losing a chance for evacuation, meanwhile “is literally life or death.”
It was past midnight for Kumar and Bezhan when Facebook began coming back to life, but even then, some of its functionalities, including search and notifications, were not yet available. Bezhan hadn’t heard back yet about whether she could add that additional name for evacuation.
But she was also concerned that her Afghan friends might be jumping to conclusions about what caused the outage. 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—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 p.m. 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.”
This story has been updated with details from Kumar about the impact of the outage.