When you joined the RIPE NCC in 1999 what was the state of the Internet? How different was the European Internet community then?
During the second half of the 1990s, before I joined the RIPE NCC, I noticed that the European Internet community was beginning to organise itself. So, the various components which founded the Internet and its community in Europe, such as the RIPE NCC, were coming together and establishing ways to work with each other. A few years after I arrived at the RIPE NCC, these structures had become more formalised. We then experienced a boom in the Internet thanks to which our membership grew substantially. Many organisations and individuals were engaging with us and were very keen to acquire IP addresses. By 1999 the initial forms of Internet governance were emerging in Europe, following this period of coming together. There was a lot of work to be done – but it was a really exciting time to be involved in the development of the Internet.
At that stage, what was biggest challenge the Internet community faced?
One of the greatest, and earliest, challenges that I saw while at the RIPE NCC was the unprecedented demand for addresses resulting from the Internet boom of the mid-to-late 1990s. I felt we were, perhaps understandably, quite unprepared for this. The speed and scale of the development of the Internet was certainly unforeseen. That did leave us in a situation where we had to scramble to hire staff and get them trained up. We were a little unprepared at the time. It was overwhelming at times and our registration services team had huge waiting lists of people wanting IP addresses. We worked incredibly hard to meet this extraordinary demand for IPv4 addresses. While this was a really challenging period, we were encouraged by the fantastic support we received from our members and the wider Internet community. In the long run, we were able to successfully meet this demand, thanks to the goodwill and technical expertise of others who supported us. This meant we could get our heads around the task at hand and tackle it efficiently.
Another challenge at this time was the relationship between the Internet community and the governments of respective countries in Europe. Where did one end and the other begin in terms of roles and responsibilities? The wider Internet community has always been about developing the Internet as a positive force, not a shallow attempt to profit. With the subsequent introduction of big intergovernmental conferences, such as the Internet Society and World Summit, we began to be concerned that governments felt the community was profiteering; and that they should claim territory back from us. This was the case with the management of telephone numbers back when telecommunications emerged - so there was a precedent. It was challenging for our community to break out of its technical corner and into these intergovernmental conferences. We had to address what we were doing and how we could ensure our voice was heard in these forums (often without being able to say anything at the conferences directly) and then try to lobby our way around the participants and the official organisations – to overcome those negative perceptions.
These early conferences formed the basis of what would become the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). By the time IGF first convened in 2006 the RIPE NCC had become accepted in the room. We were listened to, but also retained our independence and started to collaborate with governments to tackle some of the bigger issues the Internet faced. We started to receive support from all sorts of organisations, including the big incumbent telecoms providers of Europe and the surrounding regions. It was fantastic to be a part of that journey
Has the Internet developed as you expected it over the past 20 years? Has anything surprised you?
I remember the development of IPv6, a new IP system to replace IPv4, in the 1990s. During my initial interview for the role of MD at the RIPE NCC we discussed IPv6 adoption a lot. We talked about the RIPE NCC’s role in preparing for IPv6 and supporting its adoption. Which, of course, we have done. However, it still shocks me that in 2020 global adoption of IPv6 is still very low. But, at the same time, I can understand the challenges that hold up adoption. For example, smaller ISPs and developing countries often acquire second-hand, outdated equipment from the biggest companies once they are finished with it. This equipment isn’t going to be IPv6 compatible, which impacts the ability to adopt next generation addresses and, in turn, impacts Internet growth.
I also found the development of the IPv4 trading market very surprising. All of a sudden, people realised they could accumulate IPv4 address blocks. Then they could sell them for financial gain.
It’s technically not a black market. The transfers were conducted legally. But we were taken aback by the sheer profiteering, as this wasn’t how this policy was meant to be interpreted. We have learned that policies can change or be applied in unforeseen ways. Ways that are not compatible with the security and intent of the original policy. At the RIPE NCC, we always wanted to keep IPv4 available for as long as possible for new market entrants. The policy allowed new members to obtain a block of IPv4 addresses. In reality, people just set up shell companies, acquired the address blocks and sold them on. Perhaps we were naïve. We were developing these policies for the good of the Internet and to ensure its healthy and scalable growth. We did not want these policies to be abused. A steep, but very useful, learning curve for the RIPE NCC. We accepted the realities of the situation, it is very different from the earlier days when the community was smaller and closer knit. Now there are also people interested in their own benefit and not just the common good. I guess this is to be expected when the membership increases by more than tenfold.
With regards to what the future holds for IPv4 now that we’ve officially allocated our last remaining block of new addresses, I'm sure that we will continue to see address trading and rising prices for now. On the other hand, IPv6 will still be there, ready for adoption. At some point it will become more expensive, or too expensive to run IPv4 and to buy IPv4. At some point it will be simpler and cheaper to use IPv6 – and we see that happening already. That's an ongoing process.
What are the biggest challenges facing the Internet today?
The biggest issue stems from fragmentation on the political and regulatory side. The RIPE NCC covers 76 countries with a spectrum of views on human rights and the freedom of speech. While some are well aligned, others aren’t at all. Each country (and its respective government) has its own unique needs and set of goals. Circumstances in each of these countries are hard to predict but can create new requirements. The RIPE NCC will prepare as best as it can, within the confines of a self-regulated model. However, fragmentation represents a huge challenge for the wider Internet community. We still have to work with all of these governments and attempt to address their varying concerns. As a community, we must be strong and work together to create as much consensus, via open dialogue, as possible.
How can the community best collaborate to solve these challenges?
Today, the RIPE community has expanded to incorporate more organisations than it used to. It is no longer the preserve of network engineers, and other such technically minded individuals and organisations. The RIPE community now comprises other key bodies involved in the safe running of the Internet. Law enforcement and government agencies are two examples of this. There is a vast expanse of knowledge across this extended community, that through openness and (as much as possible) simplified processes key stakeholders can share best practice. This is invaluable to solving the challenges ahead. For the more technically minded, this expansion can help them to step away from the technical lens through which they view some of the multi-faceted issues we face and instead consider things from new perspectives. This collaboration is absolutely key to the work the community does and the way in which we self-regulate.
In 20 years, are we going to be facing the same kind of issues? How do you expect the industry to evolve?
I think it is very difficult to predict what things will be like in five or ten years, let alone twenty. I really hope that, whatever happens, we’re able to stay true to some of the early, fundamental principles of the Internet. This framework was key to the success of the Internet and will continue to be key to development and innovation within our community. Ultimately, the Internet should be a tool that enables us to work together and cooperate across borders and communities. Keeping this community-based cooperation at the heart of operations will be key to future success.
After 20 years with the RIPE NCC, what’s next for you?
For now, I plan to take some time to be with my family and friends before considering my next move. I still hope to be involved with the RIPE Community in some manner, even if it is just being present at the bi-annual RIPE meetings so I can talk to members and keep up with the latest developments.
Axel Pawlik, former Managing Director, RIPE Network Coordination Centre