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Should Technical Actors Play a Political Role in the Internet Age?

Published on
2 Jun 2017
Written by
Corinne Cath-Speth

The African Network Information Center (AFRINIC) – the technical non-for-profit organization responsible for allocating and registering internet number resources, including Internet Protocol (IP) addresses – is considering a proposal that would deny IP addresses to governments that order internet shutdowns. In a statement, the authors of the proposed AFRINIC policy said:

“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.”

This move comes after the Cameroonian government shut down the internet in its Anglophone regions for several months. Broadly speaking, governments are increasingly displaying an adversarial stance towards the Internet and hitting the internet ‘kill switch’ during periods of upheaval or political dissent. Human rights organizations tracking internet shutdowns found that in 2016 there were over 50 shutdowns, more than double the number of 2015.

Although the AFRINIC proposal is unlikely to be adopted in its original form, the proposal raises the question of how technical actors should respond to repressive government practices. Various political entities, including the United Nations and multiple NGOs, condemn internet shutdowns. While these political actors cannot prevent countries from turning off the connection, technical actors, like AFRINIC, have the power to at least make African governments think twice before taking such measures. Since African governments are dependent upon AFRINIC for IP addresses, if AFRINIC stops providing them, the impact would be felt immediately, stifling both the digital economy and growth of local networks.

The internet has brought about a fundamental change in which actors are expected to shoulder what responsibility, for which public interest issues. Specifically, the power of technical internet actors to enter political debates is changing as the internet becomes essential to the basic functioning of society. Still, blocking certain governments from essential internet resources – like IP addresses –  is an unprecedented act, and not without risk or controversy. Two concerns stand out, in particular: first, should a technical organization take on such a political role? Second, would the proposed policy undermine the overall technical stability of the internet?

AFRINIC is not the only technical actor grappling with these issues. In recent years, various technical organizations – including the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) – have worked on defining their responsibility to respect human rights. Their approaches vary, both in substance and effectiveness. Some technical organizations lean heavily on Corporate Social Responsibilities (CSR) schemes, others on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and still others apply the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) to their work. These latter principles have the advantage of being squarely rooted in international human rights law. They provide technical actors with  clear guidelines for understanding and mitigating  potential negative impacts their work might have on human rights. Whether technical actors like it or not, they can no longer ignore that their work has an impact on public interest issues such as human rights.

This brings us back to AFRINIC. Considering the responsibility of technical actors towards human rights in the Internet Age, the proposed AFRINIC policy can be considered a positive development. It presents a very real and actionable sanction to prevent governments from hitting the internet ‘kill-switch’. However, at the same time, it’s worth considering the risk and consequences of withholding IP addresses. Should we really allow technical actors to hold critical Internet resources hostage when they disagree with certain political decisions? We can all get behind condemning Internet shutdowns, but what if technical actors take action on contentious issues, like copyright or law enforcement’s use of the Internet? Do we really want technical actors to play a deciding role in these kinds of debates?

There’s also the question of a striking a balanced response. Because the internet is a network-of-networks, what happens in one locality will impact the entirety of the net. If a technical response or sanction is not measured, technical actors run the risk of responding in a way that is equally bad, or worse, for internet access than the policy they are trying to fight.

Before taking dire (but perhaps necessary) steps to prevent governments from enacting internet shutdown policies, technical actors like AFRINIC should undertake an impact assessment of how their own policies to prevent shutdowns impact both the ability of individual African end-users to access the internet and the technical stability of the internet. The UNGPs provide a strong method for doing such impact assessments as they relate to the human rights questions underlying internet access. A good impact assessment for technical stability remains to be formulated and could benefit from further research.

One thing is clear. The thorny questions surrounding the responsibility of technical actors and how they should react to repressive political decisions will continue to surface as the internet becomes increasingly integrated with our society. The AFRINIC proposal is a logical step towards providing an answer, but runs the risk of overshooting its target at the expense of everyday internet users.

The author of this piece worked on human rights within the IETF and ICANN with various NGOs as a civil society representative and continues to do so as part of her Ph.D. research.

This article originally appeared on the Council of Foreign Relations website