African internet growth depends on greater engagement, not AFRINIC
The Supreme Court of Mauritius recently lifted a freeze on the bank accounts of African regional internet registry (RIR) AFRINIC, but the firm, one of the world’s five IP distributors, remains entangled in a legal imbroglio that has led some commentators to speculate that it could be in line for dissolution. While that prospect is certainly not impossible, it is a leap too far to suggest, as some observers have, that such an outcome would “derail internet development in Africa”.
Certainly, the world’s RIRs are more important than many people might believe: while they are private companies, they serve a vital function—distributing the IP addresses that are necessary to access the Internet and maintaining the registration database for these addresses. The fact that these firms essentially hold regional monopolies on these important services naturally raises the bar on their corporate behaviour—a bar which AFRINIC has repeatedly not met. Indeed, AFRINIC has been beleaguered by accusations of corruption and mismanagement for many years, while the organization has stubbornly refused to follow best practices laid down by the world’s other four RIRs and enhance collaboration with them.
Given that the meagre Internet resources that AFRINIC still holds are supremely insufficient to meet the continent’s ballooning demand, it may be time to consider an alternative to its outdated and arbitrary governance, regardless of the outcome of AFRINIC’s ongoing legal problems.
Plagued by corruption allegations
Even aside from the case for which it’s being taken to court, AFRINIC has plenty of skeletons in its closet. After all, more than one high-level employee has been accused of suspicious activity in the past, with founding member Ernest Byaruhanga the most notable among them.
In 2019, Byaruhanga unexpectedly resigned his post in the wake of allegations that he had been involved in the illegal acquisition and sale of IP blocks worth an estimated $50 million. Most concerningly of all, AFRINIC appeared to take little action over the issue, instead trotting out the same lines that they had used when previously queried over questionable dealings: that an investigation was ongoing and that no further comment would be made until it had reached its conclusion.
Those tactics of sweeping issues under the carpet were already tried and tested by the company’s management with regard to a sexual harassment scandal in 2018. In the wake of the board’s clumsy handling of the case, AFRINIC employees tried to hold a vote of no confidence in their superiors, only for that to be blocked for fear that the incumbents would lose their position.
New CEO Eddy Kayihura has paid lip service to restoring AFRINIC’s reputation internally and internationally, but in practice Kayihura has overseen more heavy-handed measures—such as claiming a right to reclaim addresses after a holder modifies their use, claiming the right to unilaterally review uses at any time and attempting to restrict users from carrying out any activity outside of the 55 countries designated by AFRINIC—that have now landed the firm in legal hot water.
Ploughing its own obstinate furrow
Indeed, the reckless policymaking which has continued under Eddy Kayihura’s tenure appears to be par for the course for AFRINIC. In 2017, AFRINIC’s own employees raised red flags over the registry’s attempts to withdraw internet resources from governments who shut down their country’s internet. The measure was challenged even by AFRINIC’s own staff, who doubted that holding the IP addresses hostage fell within the company’s remit as a resource provider.
In addition to the question of whether AFRINIC was overstepping its bounds, the African RIR seemed to have given little to no thought to how it would be possible to prove that a government had unlawfully deprived their citizens of Internet access, or of the inevitable retaliatory litigation that would follow. In the words of one industry expert, such a move would only serve to make AFRINIC “irrelevant”, as ”an attempt to convert AFRINIC into the Internet police will result in a fracturing of the rough consensus by which AFRINIC exists”.
Perhaps a more pressing contributor to the African RIR’s irrelevance is the dwindling state of the resources over which they’re currently squabbling in courtrooms. The remaining IPv4 addresses allocated to the African registry are woefully inadequate to deal with the growing demand on the continent. Given that AFRINIC has eschewed putting in place transfer policies whereby it can exchange addresses with other RIRs – and that the other four RIRs have long since done so – AFRINIC’s penchant for protectionism is simply unsustainable.
Something must give for African growth
Indeed, the globalized nature of the internet undermines the idea that RIRs must stick to their own region, and AFRINIC’s intransigence in working with others (especially in light of the few remaining IPv4 assets) and its attempts to geographically lock the IP addresses it distributes are more of a red flag for the continent than anything else. AFRINIC has been propped up for years, despite the large-scale problems at the firm, because of the pervasive belief that “no one knows what an alternative would look like”.
That alternative might not be as dire as some quarters of the media are suggesting— Africa’s internet growth is not inextricably tied to AFRINIC. African IP interests predate AFRINIC and were handled by other RIRs in the past, so there’s no reason to fear that Africa would no longer be able to access fresh Internet resources if AFRINIC were to collapse. Indeed, rather than supporting the growth of the African Internet, thanks to its heavy-handed policies and inability to stamp out allegations of corruption AFRINIC has instead been cramping the development of the Internet in Africa. After successive scandals and repeated reports of corruption and dysfunction, the appetite for an alternative to AFRINIC is growing.