'broke.af' offline as Afghan web domains suspended in pay dispute

More than 100 Afghan websites using the cheeky '.AF' domain extension are suspended after a French internet services firm failed to make payments to the Taliban-controlled Ministry of Communications.

The suspension, reported by officials this week, is a blow to mischievous internet users who used the ".af" appended to Afghan web domains to give their sites an edgy feel.

Country-specific domains — like Canada's .ca or France's .fr — are typically used by individuals or organizations in that country, but some — such as Tuvalu's .tv or Libya's .ly — also see wide use internationally because they can be used to create unique or evocative domains like "twitch.tv" or "bit.ly."

Afghanistan's .af once had a cult following because in American parlance the initials can also stand for "as fuck," an earthy phrase meaning "very" or "extremely." Scores of sites with names such as "sexy.af" and "awesome.af" were registered between 2015 and 2021, according to records maintained by internet intelligence firm DomainTools.

The double-entendre does not appear to have anything to do with the recent suspensions.

Afghan Ministry of Communications and IT spokesperson Enayatullah Alokozai said 150 domains ending in .af and registered through the Paris-based Gandi had been suspended pending the clearance of roughly $17,000 in back payments.

'Broke.af' is one of the dozens of websites suspended by the Afghan Ministry over non-payment. The distinctive '.AF' domain; became popular in the West for its cheeky play on words. Image by Cybernews.

Gandi's CEO, Arnaud Franquinet said the number of domains was likely closer to 100. He told Reuters that international sanctions on the Taliban and Afghanistan's shaky banking situation had made it difficult to settle the debt.

"Given the context, it's hard to get the green light to make all the payments," Franquinet said. "We're working on it, but it takes a while."

The disappearance of .af domains drew attention in the tech community earlier this week after software developer Erin Shepherd, the co-creator of a small, gay-friendly social media space "queer.af" published a message from the Afghan Communications Ministry announcing the domain's suspension.

Shepherd said they knew the domain, which they registered in 2018, was not long for the world after the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 2021 and vowed to rule according to their strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Same-sex relationships were criminal offenses in Afghanistan even before the Taliban took over, but many LGBT Afghans and advocates have said fear has grown and many felt forced to flee the country since their return to power as foreign forces left.

"It's a fun domain but we knew it was from Afghanistan and we knew political things could change," Shepherd said.

Another Gandi customer, Chicago-based tech worker William Lieurance, said his website "broke.af" went offline around the same time.

It was no big loss; he said he registered the site in 2016 "after one too many Miller High Lifes" but had never got around to turning it into what he at one point envisioned as a tongue-in-cheek guide to financial literacy for millennials.

"The lesson I've taken is that registering a domain is not the same as owning a domain," Lieurance said.

The status of other Afghan sites including sexy.af and awesome.af was unclear. Many appeared to no longer be active or simply had not been renewed.

Messages sent to sexy.af and awesome.af's old registrants were not returned.

In a conversation over WhatsApp, Alokozai, the Taliban spokesperson, said the content of the various domains was irrelevant to the suspensions. If the payment was made, he said, "this problem will be solved."