Africa’s Internet riches plundered, contested by Chinese broker

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) – Foreigners have long taken advantage of Africa’s wealth in gold, diamonds and even men. Digital resources did not turn out to be any different.

Millions of Internet addresses attributed to Africa have been hijacked, some fraudulently, in particular through insider machinations linked to a former senior employee of the association which assigns the addresses of the continent. Instead of serving the development of the internet in Africa, many have benefited spammers and crooks, while others are satisfying Chinese appetites for pornography and gambling.

The new management of the non-profit association, AFRINIC, is working to recover the lost addresses. But a legal challenge by a Chinese businessman with deep pockets threatens the very existence of the body.

The businessman is Lu Heng, an arbitration specialist based in Hong Kong. Under disputed circumstances, it got 6.2 million African addresses from 2013 to 2016. That’s about 5% of the continent’s total – more than Kenya.

AFRINIC made no corruption claims when it revoked Lu’s addresses, now worth around $ 150 million, saying her company was not adequately serving Africa’s interests. Lu fired back. His lawyers persuaded at the end of July a Mauritian judge, where AFRICNIC is based, to freeze his bank accounts. His company also filed an $ 80 million defamation lawsuit against AFRINIC and its new CEO.

It comes as a shock to the global networking community, which has long viewed the Internet as a technological scaffolding to move society forward. Some fear that this will undermine the entire digital addressing system that makes the Internet work.

“We never really thought, especially in the AFRINIC region, that someone would directly attack a fundamental piece of internet governance and just try to shut it down, make it go away. Said Bill Woodcock, executive director of Packet Clearing House, a global non-profit organization that has helped develop the Internet in Africa.

Lu told The Associated Press that he was an honest businessman who didn’t break any rules in obtaining African address blocks. And, rejecting the consensus of Internet stewards, it says its five regional registries don’t have to decide where IP addresses are used.

“AFRINIC is supposed to serve the Internet, it’s not supposed to serve Africa,” Lu said. “They’re just accountants.

By revoking Lu’s address blocks, AFRINIC is trying to reclaim critical address space for a continent that is lagging behind in harnessing Internet resources to raise living standards and improve health and education. Africa received only 3% of the first generation IP addresses in the world.

Worse yet: the alleged theft of millions of AFRINIC IP addresses, involving the organization’s former No.2 official, Ernest Byaruhanga, who was fired in December 2019. It is not known if he was acting alone.

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

While billions of people use the Internet daily, its inner workings are poorly understood and rarely come under scrutiny. Globally, five fully autonomous regional organizations, operating as not-for-profit public trusts, decide who owns and operates the Internet’s limited store of first-generation IP address blocks. Founded in 2003, AFRINIC was the last of the five registries to be created.

Just ten years ago, the pool of 3.7 billion first-generation IP addresses, known as IPv4, was completely depleted in the developed world. These IP addresses now auction for between $ 20 and $ 30 each.

The current crisis was precipitated by the discovery of the alleged fraud at AFRINIC. The hijacking of 4 million IP addresses worth over $ 50 million by Byahuranga and possibly others was discovered by Ron Guilmette, a freelance Internet detective in California, and exposed by him and the reporter Jan Vermeulen of the South African tech website MyBroadband. Byahuranga is believed to live in his native Uganda, but could not be located for comment.

AFRINIC CEO from 2003 to 2015, Adiel Akplogan, told the AP he was unaware at the time of the alleged address hijacking by Byahuranga.

“I don’t know how he did it,” said Akplogan, a Togolese who is currently vice president of technical engagement at ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the California body that oversees the global network address and domain. name of the companies “And for those who know the reality of my management of AFRINIC, they know very well that it is not something that I will have known and that I will have let it happen. “

The ownership of at least 675,000 whimsical addresses remains in dispute. Some are controlled by an Israeli businessman, who sued AFRINIC for trying to get them back.

Many contested addresses continue to host websites with absurd URL names like that contain gambling and pornography aimed at an audience in China. The AP also found similar websites using IP addresses that Lu obtained from AFRINIC. Although these sites are banned by the Chinese government, they are still accessible there.

Lu said these sites represent only a tiny fraction of the websites using his IP addresses and that his company has strict policies against posting illegal material like child pornography and terrorism-related content. He said he does not actively monitor content on millions of tenant-hosted websites, but all complaints of illegal activity leading to action are immediately referred to law enforcement.


Bajak reported from Boston and Suderman from Richmond, Virginia.


In this article, first published on October 1, 2021, The Associated Press explained that millions of internet addresses allocated to Africa are not serving internet development in Africa. The story was updated on November 22, 2021 to further clarify that AFRINIC, the nonprofit that assigns mainland internet addresses, revoked addresses assigned to businessman Lu Heng because it determined that his company was not adequately serving the interests of Africa, and made no corruption claims.

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