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Africa internet riches plundered, contested by China broker

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KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — 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% 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.

AFRINIC made no claim of graft when it revoked Lu’s addresses, now worth about $150 million, saying his company was not adequately serving Africa’s interests. Lu 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 $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% of the world’s first-generation IP addresses.

Making things worse: 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’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 lawsuit is unrelated to the criminal complaint against Byaruhanga. But it has also 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. Globally, five fully autonomous regional bodies, operating as nonprofit public trusts, decide who owns and runs 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 shy of a decade ago, the pool of 3.7 billion first-generation IP addresses, known as IPv4, was fully exhausted in the developed world. Such IP addresses now sell at auction for between $20 and $30 each.

The current crisis was precipitated by the uncovering of the alleged fraud at AFRINIC. The misappropriation of 4 million IP addresses worth more than $50 million by Byahuranga and perhaps others was discovered by Ron Guilmette, a freelance internet sleuth in California, and exposed by him and journalist Jan Vermeulen of the South African tech website MyBroadband.

But that was far from all of it.

Ownership of at least 675,000 wayward addresses is still in dispute. Some are controlled by an Israeli businessman, who has sued AFRINIC for trying to reclaim them. Guilmette calculates that a total of 1.2 million stolen addresses remain in use.

Someone had tampered with AFRINIC’s WHOIS database records — which are like deeds for IP addresses — to steal so-called legacy address blocks, Guilmette said. It’s unclear if it was Byahuranga alone or if other insiders or even hackers were involved, he added.

Many of the misappropriated address blocks were unused IP space stolen from businesses, including mining giant Anglo American.

Many of the disputed addresses continue to host websites that have nonsense URL address names and contain gambling and pornography aimed at an audience in China, whose government bans such online businesses.

When Kayihura fixed his sights on Lu this year, he told him in writing that IP address blocks allocated to his Seychelles-registered company were not “originating services from within the AFRINIC service region — contrary to the justification provided.”

Lu would not discuss the justifications he provided to AFRINIC for the IP addresses he’s obtained, but said he’s never broken any of AFRINIC’s rules. Such justifications are part of what is typically an opaque, confidential process. Kayihura would not comment on them, citing the legal case. Nor would the two men who were AFRINIC’s CEOs when Lu received the allocations.

Emails obtained by the AP show that in his initial request for IP addresses in 2013, Lu made clear to AFRINIC that his customers would be in China. In those emails, Lu said he needed the addresses for virtual private networks — known as VPNs — to circumvent the Chinese government’s firewall that blocks popular websites like Facebook and YouTube there.

He said he discussed this with Adiel Akplogan, AFRINIC’s first CEO, in Beijing in a 2013 meeting cited in the emails. Akplogan, who stepped down in 2015, would not comment on any discussions he may have had with Lu on the subject.

Akplogan’s successor, South African internet pioneer Alan Barrett, would say only that “all appropriate procedures were followed.”

By that time, in 2016-17, Lu said his company, Cloud Innovation, had quit the VPN business and shifted into leasing address space.

Lu notes that other regional registries – including RIPE in Europe and ARIN, the North American registry – routinely allocate address blocks outside their regions.

That may be so, experts say, but Africa is a special case because it’s still developing and vulnerable to exploitation – even if AFRINIC’s bylaws don’t explicitly ban geographical outsiders from obtaining IP space.

Unlike at other regional registries, AFRINIC’s stewards neglected to forge strong alliances with governments on the continent with the resources to fend off legal challenges from wealthy usurpers, said Woodcock of the Packet Clearing House.

“The governmental relationships necessary to get it treated as critical infrastructure were never prioritized in the African region,” he added. “This is not a threat coming from Africa. This is a threat from China.”

The international registry community has rallied to the aid of AFRINIC’s embattled reformers.

ARIN’s president, John Curran, said in a statement of support that the Mauritian court should also consider whether any fraud was committed in awarding the IP addresses to Lu. His legal battle “has potential for significant impact to the overall stability of the Internet number registry system,” he wrote.

A mutual assistance fund of more than $2 million created by the regional registries is available — and has been offered — should AFRINIC need it to keep running during the court fight.

The AP found several pornography and gambling sites aimed at a Chinese audience using IP addresses that Lu got from AFRINIC. While those sites are banned in China, they can still be accessed there via VPNs.

Lu said such sites make up a minuscule part of the websites using his IP addresses and his company has strict policies against posting illegal material like child pornography and terrorism-related content. He said he does not actively police the content of millions of websites hosted by those leasing from his company, but all actionable complaints of illegal activity are immediately forwarded to law enforcement.

It is not clear whether the police investigation into Byaruhanga has advanced. Mauritian police did not respond to attempts to determine if they have even sought to question him. Byahuranga is believed to be living in his native Uganda but could not be located for comment.

Akplogan, his former boss, said he was not aware at the time of Byahuranga’s alleged misappropriation of addresses.

“I don’t know how he did it,” said Akplogan, who is Togolese and now based in Montreal. “And for those who know the reality about my management of AFRINIC they know very well that it’s not something that I will have known and let it go (on).”

Inducted two years ago into the Internet Society’s Hall of Fame, Akplogan is currently vice president for technical engagement at ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the California-based body that oversees the global network address and domain name businesses.

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Bajak reported from Boston and Suderman from Richmond, Virginia.

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In a story originally published Oct. 1, 2021, The Associated Press reported about how millions of internet addresses assigned to Africa are not serving Africa’s internet development. The story was updated Nov. 22, 2021, to further clarify that businessman Lu Heng’s lawsuit was not related to a criminal complaint against an official with AFRINIC, the nonprofit that assigns the continent’s internet addresses, and that AFRINIC made no claim of graft against Lu.

Alan Suderman, Frank Bajak And Rodney Muhumuza, The Associated Press

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Biden says Putin will pay ‘dear price’ if he invades Ukraine

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden said he believes Vladimir Putin doesn’t want full blown war in Ukraine and would pay a “dear price” if he moves forward with a military incursion.

Biden, speaking at a news conference to mark his one-year anniversary in office, also said he believes that Russia is preparing to take action on Ukraine, though he doesn’t think the Russian president has made a final decision. He suggested that he would limit Russia’s access to the international banking system if it did further invade Ukraine.

“I’m not so sure that he is certain what is he going to do,” Biden said. He added, “My guess is he will move in.”

Biden’s comments came hours after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a visit to Kyiv accused Russia of planning to reinforce the more than 100,000 troops it has deployed along the Ukrainian border and suggested that number could double “on relatively short order.” Blinken did not elaborate, but Russia has sent an unspecified number of troops from the country’s far east to its ally Belarus, which also shares a border with Ukraine, for major war games next month.

The U.S. president said he believes the decision will “solely” be Putin’s and suggested he was not fully confident that Russian officials with whom top White House advisers have been negotiating are fully informed about Putin’s thinking.

“There’s a question of whether the people they’re talking to know what he’s going to do,” Biden said.

Biden also suggested a “minor incursion” would elicit a lesser response than a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, saying “it’s very important that we keep everyone in NATO on the same page.” Biden later in the news conference sought to clarify that he was referring to a non-military action, such as a cyberattack, that would be met with a similar reciprocal response.

Ukraine, meanwhile, said it was prepared for the worst and would survive whatever difficulties come its way. The president urged the country not to panic.

Blinken’s visit to the Ukrainian capital came two days before he is to meet in Geneva with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. That follows a series of inconclusive talks last week that failed to ease rising tensions.

Russian military activity has been increasing in recent weeks, but the U.S. has not concluded whether Putin plans to invade or whether the show of force is intended to squeeze the security concessions without an actual conflict.

Biden, who spoke with Putin twice last month, said he’s made it clear to him that Russia would face severe sanctions. Still, he said the decision for Putin could come down to “what side of the bed” he wakes up on.

“He’s never seen sanctions like the ones I promised will be imposed if he moves, No. 1,” Biden warned. “This is not all just a cake walk for Russia,” Biden said. “They’ll pay a stiff price immediately” and in the medium and long term “if they do it.”

In Kyiv, Blinken reiterated Washington’s demands for Russia to de-escalate the situation by removing its forces from the border area, something that Moscow has flatly refused to do. And, Blinken said he wouldn’t give Russia the written response it expects to its demands when he and Lavrov meet in Geneva.

Meanwhile, a top Russian diplomat said Moscow would not back down from its insistence that the U.S. formally ban Ukraine from ever joining NATO and reduce its and the alliance’s military presence in Eastern Europe. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow had no intention of invading Ukraine but that its demands for security guarantees were non-negotiable.

The U.S. and its allies have said the Russian demands are non-starters, that Russia knows they are and that Putin is using them in part to create a pretext for invading Ukraine, which has strong ethnic and historical ties to Russia. The former Soviet republic aspires to join the alliance, though has little hope of doing so in the foreseeable future.

Blinken urged Western nations to remain united in the face of Russian aggression. He also reassured Ukraine’s leader of NATO support while calling for Ukrainians to stand strong.

Blinken told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that the U.S. and its allies were steadfast in backing his country and its democratic aspirations against Russian attempts to incite division and discord through “relentless aggression.”

“Our strength depends on preserving our unity and that includes unity within Ukraine,” he told Zelenskyy. “I think one of Moscow’s long-standing goals has been to try to sow divisions between and within our countries, and quite simply we cannot and will not let them do that.”

The Biden administration had said earlier it was providing an additional $200 million in defensive military aid to Ukraine. Blinken said more assistance is coming and that it would only increase should Russia invade.

Zelenskyy thanked Blinken for the aid, which was approved in late December but not confirmed until Wednesday.

“This (military) support not only speaks to our strategic plans of Ukraine joining the alliance, but more importantly to the level of our military, our military supplies,” he said, referring to Kyiv’s desire to join NATO.

“Your visit is very important,” Zelenskyy said. “It underlines once again your powerful support of our independence and sovereignty.”

Zelenskyy released a video address to the nation on Wednesday evening, urging Ukrainians not to panic over fears of a possible invasion. But he said the country has been living with the Russian threat for many years and should always be prepared for war. He called on all Ukrainians, especially the elderly, to “breathe” and “calm down.”

Ukraine’s president also gave assurances that the country was strengthening its defense capabilities and doing everything possible to resolve the crisis through diplomacy.

“Ukraine doesn’t want a war, but must always be prepared for it,” Zelenskyy said.

From Kyiv, Blinken plans a short trip to Berlin for talks with German and other European allies on Thursday before meeting with Lavrov.

On Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron called on the European Union to draw up a plan to ease tensions with Russia, “We should build it among Europeans, then share it with our allies in the framework of NATO, and then propose it for negotiation to Russia,” he said.

Washington and its allies have kept the door open to possible further talks on arms control and confidence-building measures to reduce the potential for hostilities.

Ryabkov insisted, however, that there can’t be any meaningful talks on those issues if the West doesn’t heed the main Russian requests for the non-expansion of NATO with a formal response. He said the Russian demands are “a package, and we’re not prepared to divide it into different parts, to start processing some of those at the expense of standing idle on others.”

Blinken, though, said no such formal response was coming. “I won’t be presenting a paper at that time to Foreign Minister Lavrov,” he said. “We need to see where we are and see if there remain opportunities to pursue the diplomacy and pursue the dialogue.”

The Biden administration and its allies have accused Putin of creating the crisis and say it is up to him and the Russians to decide whether to invade and suffer severe economic consequences.

Russia has brushed off calls to withdraw its troops by saying it has a right to deploy its forces wherever it likes on its own territory. It also has rejected U.S. allegations that it’s preparing a “false flag operation” to use as a pretext for intervention. Russia has angrily denied the charge.

Before Blinken’s visit to Kyiv, a delegation of U.S. senators traveled to Ukraine to emphasize congressional support for the country.

Russia in 2014 seized the Crimean Peninsula after the ouster of Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly leader and also threw its weight behind a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine. More than 14,000 people have been killed in nearly eight years of fighting between the Russia-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces in the country’s industrial heartland, called Donbas.

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Lee reported from Kyiv. Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv contributed to this report.

Matthew Lee And Aamer Madhani, The Associated Press

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CP NewsAlert: Four people including baby found dead in Manitoba near U.S. border

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WINNIPEG — Mounties in Manitoba say they have found the bodies of four people — including an infant and a teen — near the United States border.

They say the four died from exposure during a blizzard and freezing temperatures.

RCMP say American authorities first notified them about a group that had crossed into the U.S. from near Emerson, Man., and they had items with them for an infant but no baby.

Mounties went searching yesterday and located the body of a man, woman and infant.

They also found a teen’s body nearby.

RCMP are telling people not to attempt to cross the border in either direction because it can be deadly.

More coming …

The Canadian Press

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