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As Kabul falls, Whois could present a danger to ordinary Afghans

Kevin Murphy, August 19, 2021, Domain Policy

With Afghanistan falling to the Taliban this week, there’s potential danger to .af registrants — both in terms of losing domain services and of Whois being used for possibly deadly reprisals.

At time of writing, it’s been four days since the fall of Kabul. The uneasy truce between NATO and Taliban forces has failed to prevent scenes of chaos at the city’s main airport and the PR machine of so-called “Taliban 2.0” is in full bluster.

The new Taliban is, its spokespeople suggest, more tolerant of western liberal values and more supportive of human rights than its brutal, pre-9/11 incarnation.

Few believe this spin, and there have been multiple reports of 1990s-style oppression, including revenge killings and the suppression of women’s rights, across the country.

With all that in mind, a blog post about .af domain names may seem trivial, but it’s not my intention to trivialize.

I’m as appalled as any right-minded observer by the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and the neglect that led to it. But I believe .af could prove a learning moment in the ongoing conversation about Whois privacy.

The .af ccTLD has been managed since not long after the US-led invasion by the country’s Ministry of Communications and IT as the Afghanistan Network Information Center.

The registry had previously been managed for free from London by NetNames, with an admin contact in Kabul, according to the report of the 2003 IANA redelegation, which happened at a time when Afghanistan was still under a transitional government heavily overseen by the foreign governments behind the invasion.

Domain policy for .af was created in 2002, and it includes provisions for an open, freely available Whois database that is still in effect today.

Domains registered via overseas registrars appear to be benefiting from the impact of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which redacts personal information, but this obviously does not apply in Afghanistan.

This means the names, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses of .af registrants are available for querying via various Whois interfaces, including the registry’s own, which is managed by New Zealand-based back-end CoCCA.

Using a combination of web searches and Whois queries, it is possible to find personally identifiable information of registrants, including names and addresses, at local human rights groups, as well as local news media and technology providers supportive of human rights causes.

If the reports of Taliban fighters conducting house-to-house searches for enemies of the new state are accurate, the easy availability of this personal data could be a serious problem.

To a great extent, this could be a case study in what privacy advocates within the ICANN community are always warning about — public access to Whois data gives oppressive regimes a tool to target their oppression.

And as we have seen this week, oppressive regimes can appear almost literally overnight.

While it seems unlikely there’s anyone from the old Afghan ministry still in control of the registry, I think .af back-end provider CoCCA, as well as Whois aggregators such as DomainTools, should have a long think about whether it’s a good idea to continue to provide open access to .af Whois records at this time.

Fortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a great many .af domains under management. DomainTools reckons it’s under 7,000.

At the other end of the scale of seriousness, overseas .af registrants may also see issues with their names due to the Taliban takeover.

It seems incredible today, but in 2001 a Taliban decree restricted internet access to a single computer at a government ministry. Others in government could apply to use this computer by sending a fax to the relevant minister.

While it seems impossible that such a Draconian restriction could be reintroduced today, it still seems likely that the Taliban will crack down on internet usage to an extent, including introducing morality or residency restrictions to .af regs.

.af is currently open to registrants from anywhere in the world, with no complex restrictions and .com-competitive prices.

Many multinational corporations have registered .af names for their local presence.

The string “af” has in recent years become social media shorthand for “as fuck”, and a small number overseas registrants appear to be using it as a domain hack in that context — type “corrupt.af” into your browser and see what happens.

Others seem to be using .af, where short domains are still available, as shortcuts to their social media profiles.

I don’t believe ICANN will need to get directly involved in this situation. Its Whois query tool does not support .af, and IANA presumably won’t need to get involved in terms of redelegation any more than it would following a general election or a coup d’├ętat.