Governments that cut off internet access to their citizens could find themselves refused new IP addresses under a proposal put through one of the five global IP allocation organizations.
The suggested clampdown will be considered at the next meeting of internet registry Afrinic in Kenya in June: Afrinic is in charge of managing and allocating IP address blocks across Africa.
Under the proposal, a new section would be added to Afrinic's official rules that would allow the organization to refuse to hand over any new IP address to a country for 12 months if it is found to have ordered an internet shutdown.
The ban would cover all government-owned entities and others that have a "direct provable relationship with said government." It would also cover any transfer of address space to those entities from others.
That withdrawal of services would escalate if the country continued to pull the plug on internet access. Under the proposal: "In the event of a government performing three or more such shutdowns in a period of 10 years – all resources to the aforementioned entities shall be revoked and no allocations to said entities shall occur for a period of 5 years."
The proposal was sparked by a recent increase in the number of complete nationwide shutdowns of internet service – something that has been a cause of increasing concern and ire within the internet infrastructure community.
The trend started during the Egyptian revolution back in 2011 when authorities killed the entire's country web access prior to a big protest march. Employees of ISPs and mobile phone companies reported troops turning up at their homes and pointing guns at their families in order to enforce the shutdown.
Until then, many governments had assumed it was largely impossible to turn off internet access to their entire nation. Soon after, government departments educated themselves about AS numbers and internet routing and started using their power to set up systems that would allow them to order the shutdown of all networks from a central point.
While some countries only used this ability in the more dire circumstances – riots or terrorist attacks – shutdowns quickly started being used preemptively and for political reasons.
Bangladesh switched off its entire country's net connectivity prior to the sentencing of former government leaders for war crimes. Then Iraq started shutting down the entire country for several hours at a time in order to prevent exam cheating.
While these were enormously frustrating, the shutdown typically lasted only a few hours. But then Cameroon decided to cut off the internet for weeks – and targeted specific communities. The country's southwest and northwest provinces were taken offline following violent protests: a decision that had a hugely damaging impact on its "Silicon Mountain" startup zone, and also took down its banks and ATMs.
In India, the number and frequency of internet shutdowns has sparked a new protest movement and website that tracks them.
The situation has grown so dire that the United Nations got involved and officially condemned the practice at a meeting of the Human Rights Council back in July. Despite opposition from a number of countries – including China, Russia, India and Kenya – a resolution passed forbidding mass web blockades.
The reality, however, is that there is nothing to prevent governments from shutting down the internet and very little anyone can do in the face of a determined push from the authorities.
But now the techies are fighting back. The Afrinic proposal has been put forward by the CTO and the Head of IP strategy for Liquid Telecommunications – a large pan-African ISP – as well as the CEO of Kenya's main ISP Association. As such it is a proposal that many are taking seriously.
"While the authors of this policy acknowledge that what is proposed is draconian in nature, we feel that the time has come for action to be taken, rather than just bland statements that have shown to have little or no effect," they wrote, noting that "over the last few years we have seen more and more governments shutting down the free and open access to the internet in order to push political and other agendas."
Whether governments like it or not, they are reliant on the provision of IP address to expand their networks and digital economy, and Afrinic is the only organization that can realistically provide them. If the policy does get passed, it would almost certainly act as a strong deterrent for government ministers to shutting down internet access.
But there are a wealth of problems with the idea, not least of which would be the determination of what represents an internet shutdown. The authors put forward a suggested definition:
An internet shutdown is deemed to have occurred 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 wording is likely to be very heavily scrutinized. And it would require someone or group to make a determination that it has happened – which would likely become a politically charged decision. And none of that considers the fact that national leaders are unlikely to accept punitive terms being placed against them by a third party.
In short, it is a huge political headache. But it may also be one that only the internet community is capable to taking on and winning. The next few months will see whether the 'net community in Africa is willing to take on the challenge for the greater good. ®