Africa internet riches plundered, contested by China broker

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Outsiders have long profited from Africa’s riches of gold, diamonds, and even people.?Digital resources have proven no different.

Millions of internet addresses assigned to Africa have been waylaid, some fraudulently, including through insider machinations linked to a former top employee of the nonprofit that assigns the continent’s addresses.

Instead of serving Africa’s internet development, many have benefited spammers and scammers, while others satiate Chinese appetites for pornography and gambling.

New leadership at the nonprofit, AFRINIC, is working to reclaim the lost addresses. But a legal challenge by a deep-pocketed Chinese businessman is threatening the body’s very existence.

The businessman is Lu Heng, a Hong Kong-based arbitrage specialist. Under contested circumstances, he obtained 6.2 million African addresses from 2013 to 2016. That’s about 5 per cent of the continent’s total more than Kenya has.

The internet service providers and others to whom AFRINIC assigns IP address blocks aren’t purchasing them.

They pay membership fees to cover administrative costs that are intentionally kept low. That left lots of room, though, for graft.

When AFRINIC revoked Lu’s addresses, now worth about USD 150 million, he fought back. His lawyers in late July persuaded a judge in Mauritius, where AFRICNIC is based, to freeze its bank accounts. His company also filed a USD 80 million defamation claim against AFRINIC and its new CEO.

It’s a shock to the global networking community, which has long considered the internet as technological scaffolding for advancing society. Some worry it could undermine the entire numerical address system that makes the internet work.

There was never really any thought, particularly in the AFRINIC region, that someone would just directly attack a foundational element of internet governance and just try and shut it down, try and make it go away, said Bill Woodcock, executive director of Packet Clearing House, a global nonprofit that has helped build out Africa’s internet.

Lu told The Associated Press that he’s an honest businessman who broke no rules in obtaining the African address blocks. And, rejecting the consensus of the internet’s stewards, he says its five regional registries have no business deciding where IP addresses are used.

AFRINIC is supposed to serve the internet, it’s not supposed to serve Africa, Lu said. They’re just bookkeepers.

In revoking Lu’s address blocks, AFRINIC is trying to reclaim internet real estate critical for a continent that lags the rest in leveraging internet resources to raise living standards and boost health and education. Africa has been allocated just 3 per cent of the world’s first-generation IP addresses.

Making things worse: the alleged theft of millions of AFRINIC IP addresses, involving the organisation’s former No. 2 official, Ernest Byaruhanga, who was fired in December 2019. It’s unclear whether he was acting alone.

The registry’s new CEO, Eddy Kayihura, said at the time that he’d filed a criminal complaint with the Mauritius police. He shook up management and began trying to reclaim wayward IP address blocks.

Lu’s legal gains in the case have stunned and dismayed the global internet-governance community. Network activists worry they could help facilitate further internet resource grabs by China, for starters. Some of Lu’s major clients include the Chinese state-owned telecommunication firms China Telecom and?China Mobile.

It doesn’t seem like he’s running the show. It seems like he’s the face of the show. I expect that he has got quite a significant backing that’s actually pulling the strings, said Mark Tinka, a Ugandan who heads engineering at SEACOM, a South Africa-based internet backbone and services provider.

Tinka worries Lu has access to an endless pile of resources.

Lu said allegations he’s working for the Chinese government are wild conspiracy theories. He said he’s the victim of ongoing character assassination.

While billions use the internet daily, its inner workings are little understood and rarely subject to scrutiny.

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