One of the fundamental strengths of the internet is its inter-connectivity. But certain regimes, when faced with political dissidents, protests, or even students possibly cheating on their exams, have taken to shutting down internet access. The purpose is to deny their citizens access to tools like Google, Twitter, and Facebook, which can be used to document what’s happening and reach out to coordinate resistance.
Now a governing body has declared that there should be no IP addresses awarded to governments that cut off internet access to their citizens. These infringing governments could find themselves refused new IP addresses, under a new regulatory proposal making its way through one of the five global IP allocation organizations.
Internet registry AFRINIC will consider the proposed measure at its next meeting in Kenya in June. AFRINIC is in charge of managing and allocating IP address blocks across Africa. It’s one of five regional internet registries that manage IP address allocation for the world. They coordinate with ICANN to manage namespace and make it possible to navigate the internet using .com addresses.
Under the proposal, a new section would be added to AFRINIC’s official rules that would allow the organization to refuse to issue any new IP address to a country that has ordered an internet shutdown — for an entire year.
The ban would cover all government-owned entities and others that have a “direct provable relationship with said government.” It would also prohibit any transfer of address space to those entities from others. We tend to think of Internet censorship and/or shutdown as something relatively rare or confined to a small group of countries. According to a January report by the Brookings Institute, there were 81 such incidents in 2016 alone: 22 in India, 22 in Iraq, 8 in non-ISIS controlled Syria, 6 in Pakistan, 3 in Turkey, and 1-2 in a number of other nations.
This punitive withdrawal of services would escalate if the country became a repeat offender, showing a pattern of cutting off internet access. Under the rule created by the new 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.”
In principle, this denial of services would mean that no new government websites could be created, and if an infringing government tried to move its web properties over to an NGO, AFRINIC could respond to that attempt at circumvention by revoking associated IP addresses. But there will no doubt be reciprocal escalation. Pitting governments against the internet is a no-win situation.