When telcos fight back: Can standards bodies help #KeepItOn in Africa?

UPDATE, 6/2/2017: Read the Common Statement on Internet Shutdowns from the Africa Internet Summit 2017, where participants reject the Afrinic proposal because it is not a sustainable solution for stopping shutdowns, but welcome the dialogue it spurred, and call upon African governments to “renounce the use of internet shutdowns as a policy tool, and to engage in meaningful dialogue with stakeholders.”


Tired of blocking, shutdowns, throttling, and censorship? The rest of the internet is, too, and like a body flooding an infection with white blood cells, it’s fighting back.

Horrified by rise of internet shutdowns worldwide over the past two years, some fighting network disruptions are turning to the internet’s technical standards bodies, such as Afrinic, for help. Officials at Liquid Telecom Kenya and the Kenyan tech association TeSPOK have advanced a contentious proposal: If a government shuts down the internet, Afrinic should deny that government the technical resources that make the internet work.

What is the rationale? So far, legal and political bodies have not been effective at stopping internet shutdowns, nor are they holding those responsible to account. Why not use what leverage we do have — control over technical resources — to end shutdowns?

This proposal is drawing attention worldwide, and is sparking a lively debate on listservs regarding Afrinic and other regional internet registries, and the role they can play in public policy. Today, on, Wednesday, May 31, it’s under discussion at the Africa Internet Summit in Nairobi. The battle may be regional, but the stakes are global. Is the internet only for those governments that respect human rights? Should internet gatekeepers like Afrinic have a role here, or only answer the strictest technical questions, staying out of public policy debates?

This debate has sparked self-reflection, too. Many of us  — including the more than 100 NGOs in the #KeepItOn coalition  — want to put an end shutdowns across the globe. They violate human rights, and drain local economies. They are also an early warning sign of atrocities. But does this proposal go one step too far? Is the internet something technical standards bodies can give or take away, and if so, for what reasons? Wouldn’t that just make the grandstanding of well-resourced and developed countries more ingrained?

The battleground: the internet’s “back-end”

Few people see how internet standards bodies work. You can think of it as the “back-end” of the internet. Scores of engineers around the world work in technical bodies like Afrinic, engaging in what can be tedious and slow discussions and processes to keep the internet working, developing the shared standards, protocols, and technologies of the future. It is a space for collaboration, without which the internet cannot function. These discussions and processes are deliberately open.

Once in awhile, the work in these internet standards and governance bodies pops into the public consciousness. You may remember the “IANA transition,” completed last fall, when the U.S. government finally transferred oversight of key technical protocols and processes for the internet’s “address book” to a global body.

One important job of internet governance bodies is to ensure the internet grows in a stable, equitable, and secure way, including by allocating internet “number resources,” such as Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. Five private entities, dubbed Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), allocate these internet resources in their regions, requesting more numbers from the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) to meet the demand created by people’s new smartphones, server farms, and other connected infrastructure — even streetlights. Afrinic handles all of Africa’s IP addresses.

Authored by Andrew Alston and Ben Roberts of Liquid Telecommunications, and Fiona Asonga of TeSPOK, the Afrinic proposal raises many of the same issues as the IANA transition. Some people are worried about the “politicization” of technical bodies, about fragmentation or breaking the internet, and about engineers holding power over representative governments. However, it’s important to note that the proposal falls within the scope of work and purpose for Afrinic, Africa’s only RIR.

Specifically, the proposal would withhold resources, like IP address allocation, from governments “when it can be proved that there was an attempt, failed or successful, to restrict access to the internet to a segment of the population irrespective of the provider or access medium that they utilize.” That is, it would withhold resources from governments that impose a blanket internet shutdown order. The first time the government orders such a shutdown, the government loses resources for 12 months. The third time the government deliberately shuts down networks in a 10-year span, it loses resources for the next five years.

Kenya’s internet businesses take a stand

Very few government tactics present a more direct affront to the internet than turning it off, in an evident attempt to facilitate repression. This is an opportune time for standards bodies to tell the world that shutting down the internet is not normal. We should not accept it when governments issue these orders. Shutdowns do not restore order, protect rights, or keep anyone safe. They have to stop.

For Liquid Telecom Kenya and TeSPOK to take this position, they’ve put themselves on the line.  Officials at Liquid feel they have limited options for opposing the shutdowns that continue to violate people’s human rights, and they were forced to put this issue before Afrinic to draw attention to it. And they aren’t alone. Analysts like Grace Mutung’u are presenting strong arguments in favor of the proposal: “Governments speak of leveraging information and communications technology (ICT) to achieve development goals such as SDGs or Agenda 2063 in the African Union. But shutdowns are contrary to these development aspirations — and the very same governments that have committed to these goals are also implementing shutdowns. For example, the three-month shutdown in Cameroon forced those who were relying on the internet for their businesses to abandon those businesses or move to other towns.”

As we note above, this proposal is also well within the scope of the Afrinic constitution and bylaws. It’s both legal and provided for in the organization’s founding documents, in our reading. Here are a few of the relevant bylaws:

3.4 The Company [Afrinic] shall have, both within and outside the Republic of Mauritius, full capacity to carry and/or undertake any business or activity, including but not limited to the following objects:

(i) to provide the service of allocating and registering Internet resources for the purposes of enabling communications via open system network protocols and to assist in the development and growth of the Internet in the African region;

(iii) to promote responsible management of Internet resources throughout the African region, as well as the responsible development and operation of Internet infrastructures;

(v) to propose and take such steps as are necessary to promote the development of public policies in the best interest of members and to seek legislative and regulatory consideration, whether by way of meetings or representations, of issues of general benefit to the members, where and when appropriate;

… and

(ix) to do all other things incidental or conducive to the attainment of all or any of the objects of the Company.

When the government of Cameroon shut down the internet for 93 days, it was failing to carry out “responsible” management and development of internet resources. A public policy that allows internet shutdowns is not “in the best interest of [Afrinic] members.” Shutdowns do not assist in the “development and growth of the internet.” For these reasons, we believe that it’s wholly appropriate for Afrinic to take steps to end shutdowns, and “do all other things conducive” to protect its members’ interests in keeping the internet open, secure, and connected. This proposal stops well short of seeking legislative changes, which are also within the scope of the bylaws.

The cons

That said, the question remains: Is this proposal conducive to Afrinic’s interest in expanding the role of the internet as a crucial driver of development and growth in the region?

Perhaps not. The truly negative impacts this proposal would have are fairly speculative. But some commentators have pointed out that it could keep internet resources out of the hands of people who really need them. Universities, schools, and hospitals get IP addresses administered by the government, like the one in Cameroon. Wouldn’t this proposal only hurt the people who already lack a voice?

Those concerned about development often advocate for governments and societies to rely more on the internet — not less — and to invest in the digital economy. Governments can and should encourage citizens and institutions to consider the internet their own resource, to embrace digitization, and even to assist them with managing disruptions. So wouldn’t keeping the internet out of government hands teach the wrong lesson, leading people to see the internet as a privilege bestowed, and arbitrarily denied, by outsiders?

There are also people concerned about internet fragmentation and Balkanized “splinternets.” Where technical bodies make decisions that could be perceived as politicized or prioritizing certain values, others begin to question their authority, and the decisions and processes these engineers manage might not be viewed or respected in the same way. These open multistakeholder bodies could then fall victim to critiques levied by organized blocs of governments — those that already feel excluded by Western dominance in internet governance, and are eager to pounce if allocation of the internet’s resources is done in a “biased” way.

Those unhappy with what groups like Afrinic ultimately decide could propose “solutions” like transferring control to a new body that privileges state sovereignty over values like inclusivity or merit. That’s a real danger.

We’re not backing down

However, threats and fear should not lead this debate, nor stop people from using every relevant tool we can to defend our human rights, especially when they’re urgently at risk. Why have inclusive, merit-based internet governance processes and procedures if we cannot use them to protect the internet as a shared resource for all? We should be able to defend the principles of openness against clear, imminent threats like shutdowns. Otherwise, it would be like having a pill to cure an illness, but not taking it for fear that the virus will evolve. Perhaps it will, but then so should our line of defense.

The Afrinic proposal may not be the right vehicle for stopping internet shutdowns altogether. However, it may be the only “swerve” available right now to get us out of this dangerous rut. Tune in to the news from the Africa Internet Summit with the hashtag #AISKenya to learn what people in the region are deciding about the future of the internet and how to #KeepItOn for everyone.