A proposal to punish African governments for shutting down internet access by refusing to give them any new IP addresses for a year has been shot down.
At a meeting in Nairobi, the body that oversees allocation of IP addresses in Africa – Afrinic – formally killed the idea off, noting that it "might antagonize governments in a way that will worsen the situation as a whole."
And antagonize it did. Soon after the proposal became public, internet policy mailing lists lit up as people debated the ability of the technical community to influence political decisions, while considering the risks associated with doing so. The debate spread to other internet bodies, most notably a heated presentation at the European version of Afrinic, RIPE.
Afrinic's management swiftly sought to remind everyone that any one of its members can propose a policy, but the fact that one of its three proposers had a seat on the Afrinic board, and another is the CEO of Kenya's main ISP association, lent it a degree of authority.
While Afrinic's staff developed a damning assessment of the proposed policy, claiming it would "put Afrinic at significant legal exposure from affected governments," the proposers revised their policy to account for concerns – more closely defining what a "partial shutdown" is and tightening up wording around which government entities would be refused IP addresses in the event of a shutdown.
According to insiders, African governments were furious at the proposal and made their views known, and attendees at the African Internet Summit last week noted that a significantly larger number of government representatives than usual turned up. Many in the pragmatic technical community were also highly critical of the idea of taking on governments, fearing it would create more problems than it would solve.
At the same meeting in Nairobi, the most vocal proponent of the policy – head of IP strategy at Liquid Telecommunications, Andrew Alston – lost his seat on the Afrinic board by three votes (93-90) in a poll that accumulated five more votes than the most hotly contested seat with four candidates.
Such was the level of interest and debate over the policy, however, that Afrinic put out a statement about its decision to kill off the IP punishment policy, jointly signed with five other African internet organizations.
That statement notes that while Afrinic was "concerned by the increasing number of internet shutdowns ordered by governments in Africa" and was "opposed to any form of internet shutdowns," it "does not think that the anti-shutdown policy proposal put forward by some members of the Afrinic community will offer a sustainable solution to this issue."
It goes on: "While we share the same concerns as the proposal's authors and welcome the community dialogue this has generated, we think this proposed policy will likely be ineffective and could create unintended damages."
It says the policy would be hard to implement and would "take Afrinic beyond its technical mandate and expertise." But of course the biggest issue was the fact that it "might antagonize governments" – take off the "might" and you have the reason it has been killed off.
Talk it out
What does Afrinic intend to do instead, as a way of expressing the technical community's extreme frustration at the African government cutting off the internet for long periods of time for purely political reasons? Yep: meaningful dialogue.
"We are calling on African governments to renounce the use of Internet shutdowns as a policy tool, and to engage in meaningful dialogue with stakeholders. We understand that governments have legitimate concerns related to Internet use and that they have obligations related to national security and public order.
"[We] are available to work with African governments and other stakeholders to find better solutions that do not hurt the fundamental rights of citizens and that protect the Internet's stability, resilience and openness." ®