KABUL -- Afghanistan is taking aim at cybercrime with a new law targeting online crime and militancy by groups such as the Taliban and "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS).
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani signed the new law June 30 and the Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology quickly started gathering a list of websites linked to terror groups or to their supporters, Voice of America reported.
The list is being compiled based on information from the National Directorate of Security and the Ministry of Information and Culture.
Website blocking began July 8, as authorised by the National Cyber Security Strategy of Afghanistan and the new Cyber Crime Law, according to Ministry of Telecommunications spokesman Najib Nangyal.
The law criminalises a range of online activities including hacking, spreading of ethnic hatred, distribution of online defamatory speech, exposure of government secrets, and cyber-terrorism within the provisions of the newly reviewed penal code.
"We are trying to build a cyber police team to track the criminals," Nangyal told AFP July 11. "The government is also working to track, list and block all the militants' online accounts."
Countering media-savvy terrorists
More than 8.5 million Afghans are using the internet in big cities such as Kabul, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif, most of them active on social media such as Twitter and Facebook.
The guerrilla war waged by militants and grisly video footage of war casualties, torture, hostage victims and destruction compete daily with celebrity gossip and the latest sports news in Afghan online communities.
The Taliban, who previously rejected all modern technology, have developed a media-savvy online public relations team using Twitter, Facebook and other websites, posting statements, breaking news of the latest attacks and taking responsibility for assaults, though their claims are often wildly exaggerated.
Their efforts pale globally in comparison to ISIS, which has actively exploited social media to lure thousands of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, and which is attempting to make inroads in Afghanistan.
"The law has 28 articles, and it is going to apply to all cybercrimes. All criminals will be tracked and referred to courts," Nangyal told AFP July 11.
Beneficial or 'vague' legislation?
However, Afghan media watchdog group Nai warned the law could have a detrimental effect on access to information in Afghanistan, which was ranked 120th out of 180 countries in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.
"After reviewing the law, we reached the conclusion that the law will limit the freedom of speech," Nai said in a statement that also criticised the wording of the legislation as "vague".
Kabul-based political analyst Sakhy Ahmady expressed similar concerns.
"The government aims to target terrorists' internet bases by the creation of this law, which is designed to fight and ban the activities of those who stand against Afghan national interests and ... oppose Afghan unity," he told Salaam Times.
"If that remains the aim of this law, Afghanistan will benefit from it," he said. "But my concern is that the government could limit freedom of speech [with the implementation of] such a law."
Those concerns are unfounded, say others.
"The Cyber Crime Law has its benefits including banning the websites of terrorist groups like ISIS and the Taliban, and this law can provide the basis for creating anti-criminal organs and a cybercrime police force, as well as a court and a law enforcement agency exclusively dedicated to cybercrime," Ainulldin Bahadury, director of the Lawyers' Union of Afghanistan, told Salaam Times.
[Sulaiman from Kabul contributed to this report.]