Liquid Telecom's Andrew Alston Discusses Internet Shutdowns In Afrika And Possible Ways To Stop Them

The Internet has come to be intertwined with many aspects of our personal and work lives. From communication to banking, there is no denying how important the Internet has become in facilitating life on the continent. As with most things, the good comes with the bad, and with the growth of the Internet in Afrika has come a worrying trend where some Afrikan governments have resorted to shutting down the Internet around election period or when there are protests.

The most recent example of this worrying trend is the ongoing Internet shutdown in Cameroon's North-West and South-West English-speaking regions, which has gone on for the past three months.

There has been a lot of outcry about it that even the United Nations have asked Cameroon's authorities to restore Internet access in the affected regions as a matter of urgency.

As the saying goes,talk is cheap and this sentiment is somewhat echoed by Andrew Alston, Group Head of IP Strategy at Liquid Telecommunications, who along with two other colleagues in the telecommunications industry have submitted a proposal to the African Network Information Centre (AfriNIC) that looks to punish Afrikan governments that shut down the Internet by denying them IP addresses.

Alston has 22 years in the ICT industry including experience in UNIX system administration, security consulting, and a three-year stint as amember of AfriNIC's board.

"While may statements have been made about shutdowns by many organisations, and it is great to see so many organisations standing up and speaking out against these shutdowns, my co-authors and I believed it had reached the point where stronger action was necessary," Alston said as he explained what motivated the writing and submission of their proposal.

Alston, along with his co-authors Ben Roberts of Liquid Telecommunications, and Fiona Asonga of the Telecommunications Service Providers Association of Kenya, believes that it was time to start moving beyond issuing statements against Internet shutdowns and doing something about them.


Andrew Alston, Group Head of IP Strategy, Liquid Telecommunications

The Anti-Shutdown 101 proposal as it is titled, suggests that Afrikan governments guilty of an Internet shutdown be denied resources, in this case IP addresses, for a period of twelve months following the shutdown.

While this punishment has been considered harsh by some, Alston disagrees, saying that the options beyond statements (against Internet shutdowns) are limited when a company or an individual wants to take a stand and attempt to make a difference in this arena. He further explained that The AfriNIC policy development process allows anyone to author policy and place it before the policy working group for discussion and debate". He believes this was an ideal forum for taking a stance that could potentially make a difference.

"The [AfriNIC] forum deals specifically with IP Resources and the policies by which they are allocated, used and potentially revoked on the continent, hence it was a natural fit", Alston said further.

The proposal as it stands could likely impact citizens and businesses in the affected countries negatively, as denying IP resources to government and government-owned entities could hamper the growth of the Internet in the countries being punished as the proposal suggests.

In response, Alston says that the policy specifically targets the state and state-owned entities, rather than the private consumer.

"We realize that in any policy like this, the first drafts are never perfect, and the authors are collectively hoping that through the discussion and debate on the policy mailing lists within the policy working group in AfriNIC, we will be able to further refine the policy to further limit the impact to these private businesses and citizens. The authors have no desire whatsoever to punish those in the private sector, but rather wish only to make governments think twice before they shut down the Internet and in doing so deny their citizens what we believe is a fundamental right," he added

As Alston earlier said, it is really difficult to find many options when it comes to preventing or punishing Internet shutdowns in Afrika. More so that in some countries the state is a shareholder in some telecommunications companies and state entities determine who gets licensed to become a telecommunications provider.

This raises another important question of who should be responsible for providing Internet services to citizens, Is it the government or private businesses?

"Governments and private sector both have their roles in the Internet environment, but they are distinct. Governments need to create the environment that makes the Internet and the ICT industry sustainable through the creation of sensible legislation that encourages competition and promotes free and open communication. The private entities then have a role to play to ensure that they build sustainable and stable networks over which such communication can take place," Alston explained further.

History, Alston adds, has shown that where there are open and competitive markets, the Internet thrives, the prices are lower, speeds are higher and the level of Internet penetration is higher.

"In an ideal world, the private sector brings the investment and wide-ranging technical skills that are required to the table, while the government facilitates the environment to enable these companies to thrive, and in this scenario, both the private sector and the governments benefit, the private sector through sustainable enterprise, the governments through the jobs created and the economic growth that is associated with high levels of Internet penetration," Alston said in conclusion.

As more and more Afrikan countries shut down internet access, this proposal by Alston and his co-authors appears to be the only option that could make states think twice before cutting off access. as such, we will have to not only track its progress, but participate in the discussions around it too for the sake of an open Internet in Afrika.

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