Afghanistan’s telecoms regulator wrote to internet service providers this week ordering them to block the messaging services WhatsApp and Telegram, angering some users and raising concerns about freedom of expression.
Government letters asking private telecommunications companies to suspend WhatsApp as well as Telegram, another encrypted messaging app, began circulating in Afghanistan on social media on Thursday.
Late that evening, customers of Salaam Telecom, a government-owned service provider, reported that both apps had stopped working for them.
“It is wrong and illegal,” Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar, executive director of Nai, a group that campaigns for free speech, said on Friday.
“According to the Constitution, freedom of expression is inviolable in Afghanistan. WhatsApp and Telegram are tools of free speech — if the government bans them, it means that tomorrow they could stand against media in Afghanistan too.”
The apps were still available on Friday to customers of private telecom companies, which were said to be considering whether to comply with the government’s request. Adding to the difficulty assessing the extent of the ban was the fact there was a wider WhatsApp outage in a number of countries on Friday.
It was not clear where the decision to ban the apps originated. The letters to the service providers were sent by the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology. But an official there, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said the request had come from the National Directorate of Security, the country’s intelligence agency.
The official said the spy agency had asked the Ministry of Communications to test a 20-day ban on the two apps. He did not provide a reason for the request, but WhatsApp and Telegram are often used by the Taliban and other militant groups to evade government surveillance.
On Thursday, the deputy director of the telecoms regulatory authority told the BBC that the ban was due to “security concerns.”
But later Friday, the Ministry of Communications gave an entirely different explanation, in what appeared to be a face-saving response to criticism of the ban. It said that the apps were being temporarily banned “to introduce a new kind of technology,” because users had complained about the quality of WhatsApp’s service.
The statement also denied that the ban constituted a threat to free expression. “WhatsApp and Telegram are just applications for contact and the sending of audio messages, and this does not affect freedom of speech,” it said.
An official at the intelligence agency denied that it had been behind the ban. If the move had been made for security reasons, it would have included other messaging apps like Viber, and it would not have been imposed for just 20 days, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the issue.
Representatives of WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday.
Ajmal Ayan, a former official with the telecoms regulatory authority, said the government had the legal right to ask service providers to suspend apps if there were “legitimate issues of national security.”
But Mr. Ayan noted that if militants were the intended target of a security-related ban, they could easily find ways around it, like virtual private networks, or VPNs. “Those who want to use WhatsApp and other banned applications, they can technically find other ways of using them,” he said.
In 2014, telecom companies refused a government request to ban Facebook during a prolonged election dispute that appeared to threaten Afghanistan’s stability. The government argued that posts on Facebook were worsening the tensions.
Mr. Ayan said companies might find it harder to refuse the government’s request this time — in part because a ban on the messaging apps could increase their revenue, with users forced to make phone calls or send text messages instead of using the free apps.