The foundations of the open internet are at risk of being captured by corporate interests who want to own a larger share of the remaining IPv4 address blocks, a concerned systems engineer has warned.

In just over a week, voting for the Executive Committee of the Asia Pacific Network Information Centre (APNIC) will close.

APNIC is our regional internet registry (RIR) which manages the distribution of internet resources like IP addresses and autonomous system numbers.

When an Australian internet service provider like Telstra needs new IP addresses for its customers, it has to go to APNIC and make a justification for why they deserve to be given another address block.

That justification process is meant to ensure widespread, open use of the internet around the world and requires the applicant use their IP addresses within the region.

But the emergence of groups who want to fence off the few remaining blocks of IPv4 addresses and profit from their control could change the nature of the internet as a widely available utility, warns concerned APNIC member Karl Kloppenborg, a senior system engineer with Real World Technology Solutions.

“These organisations have spawned in the last couple of years as IPv4 addresses become scarce,” Kloppenborg told Information Age.

“They buy up IP addresses to lease them out, and even run auction houses and brokerage houses all for the purpose of making money.

“Now they’re trying to stack the boards of the RIRs, in particular APNIC, and use that power to remove justification processes and in doing so exhaust last allocation of IP addresses to make profit by leasing them out.”

One of these organisations, Kloppenborg claims, is Larus Limited which calls itself a “market leader for reliable IP solutions” and has a non-profit arm called the Larus Foundation.

Larus was founded by Lu Heng who has been in a legal battle with the African RIR after it found a majority of the 6.2 million IP addresses allocated to his company, Cloud Innovation, were not being used within the African continent.

Rather, most were being routed from ISPs in Hong Kong and the US where Cloud Innovation was leasing the addresses instead of providing connections directly.

The American RIR has also dealt with Heng, knocking back his request for a million IPv4 addresses after it found the information he provided the organisation “was misleading and inconsistent”.

A quarter of the nominees for next week’s APNIC EC vote belong to Larus, including Heng himself, or are endorsed by the Number Resource Society (which is encouraging members to vote for Heng and the Larus nominees).

Heng said he “welcome[s] efforts to increase voter participation in these elections” and believes he has outlined a “positive plan for the future of APNIC”.

“Our community has an opportunity to vote for lower membership fees, reduced expenditure, stronger governance and to return APNIC to true membership accountability,” Heng said in an email to Information Age.

“I recognise that enhanced scrutiny of RIRs may be unwelcome for some but recent revelations of mismanagement, excess travel and hospitality funds combined with attempts to abuse diplomatic immunity as well as unanswered questions about legal accountability to the membership are concerning and deserve scrutiny.”

IPv4 addresses are starting to run out; Europe’s RIR made its final allocation back in 2019.

Although there’s an alternative in the 128-bit IPv6 addresses, Kloppenborg warns the stacked RIRs would “disenfranchise people from moving to IPv6 because that would work against their interests”.

He’s calling on APNIC members to vote against the members belonging to Larus and is trying to pressure APNIC to call an extraordinary meeting to pass new by-laws that would limit the ability for an organisation like Larus to stack the board.

“The Australia and New Zealand voting blocks are some of the most apathetic voting blocks,” he told Information Age.

“The hope is we can shake enough people’s minds about this to get the votes swinging in the right direction to get a two-year reprieve and sort this out properly, or in the best case change the rules so this can’t happen again.”

This story has been updated to include a statement from Lu Heng.