Back before the beginning of the Internet, folks at ARPA sat down to figure out a reasonable way for defense contractors at Universities to get their computers to talk to each other. They eventually created a thing called IP, which allowed computer to send each other data over a network something like the phone system. To make the “phone ring” at the other computer, you needed to know its “phone number”, which is known as the IP address. If you know that number, and your network knows how to get you there (or at least guess the neighborhood), you’re in! The computer on the other side of the planet is as easy to use as the one on your desk (unless you need to press the power button).
So the people doing this looked to the future – they decided that the IP “phone number” would be made up of 4 numbers from 0-255 (while it is clumsy for humans, it is simple for computers. This meant the interconnected networks could have 256x256x256x256 computers on the networks all at the same time! That’s over 4 billion possible computers! At the time, there were maybe a few dozen computers that need to do this – talk about overkill! – and each computer could answer 62768 “calls” at a time!
Once IP was in place, TCP was added on top to let you do things like transfer files, chat, send email. Life was Good. America owned this TCP/IP thing. While people at universities and defense companies used it and made suggestions, the US made the rules.
Then some guys in CERN created this thing called “the web”. It allowed a “web server” to send text, pictures, sounds to anyone who asked for a copy without needing a login and an account using a thing called a “web browser”.
Around 1991, seeing the potential for commerce and government snooping, the powers that be yanked control of this university network away and put in the control of a number of entities like Netwirk Solutions located near Langley Virginia. The “Internet” was formally opened to the entire world, and this meant college professors and their narrow view of reality had to give way to AOL and buddy lists by 1995.
As things started to take off, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out those 4 billon IP addresses were not going to last forever. This was in part because each of the original players in developing IP assigned the first number of the IP address to be exclusively theirs. AT&T, MIT, DEC, HP, GE, Xerox, Apple, Ford, Computer Sciences Corporation, Eli Lily, Merck, US Postal Service, Prudential Securities… gave themselves each 16 million numbers to use. That made it simple in the beginning to keep the phone lines straight and “how to get there from here”
Seeing the handwriting on the wall, in 1993, the rules started to change to prevent “running out” of IP numbers and to address the complaints from Europe the Internet was being dominated by English speaking Americans. If a baguette shop has a web site in Paris, they realistically could not be expected to call AOL to get a web site.
At that point, the powers that be could have said there will be an American Internet and any other country is free to set up their own Internet as long as they don’t talk to each other. But that would make it much harder for the NSA and CIA to monitor, so rightly the Internet was made global and that meant the entire world got a voice. Blocks of 16 million IPs were signed over to a European (RIPE) and Asia (APNIC) agency to do the handing out of IP addresses and handle the day to day tasks of coordinating who is in charge of what.
The original American IP Registry called ARIN (arin.net) was put under ICANN, which had overall responsibility for coordinating ARIN, RIPE and APNIC (and later LACNIC for Latin America and Afrinic for Africa). Initially ICANN was dominated by the US with the recognition eventually, the US could not unilaterally set the rules. The Snowden leaks of how the US government has abused that trust like deliberately weakening encryption has vastly sped up this process.
So what does this have to do with getting rich quick? IP addresses are now a tradable commodity that can be bought and sold. ARIN would appreciate if you have a million unused addresses that you just voluntarily turn them in, but they realize most people aren’t that altruistic. So a business of buying and selling IP addresses has blossomed. As demand for the Internet grows in China, India, and populous parts of the world, demand for the US to “give up” unused IP ranges back to ICANN to be turned over to non American numbering authorities picks up speed – but in the end, they are going to run out and trading them will become super serious business, maybe even to the point of starting wars.
IPv6 was going to “fix” this, but became a “standard by committee” that got way out of control. Rather than doing something simple like adding another digit or two in front (like country codes for international dialing), IPV6 has the ability to literally give every atom in the universe its own IPv6 address. Outside of research networks, it still has made no impact on the real world.
Here is the ARIN page about buying and selling IP addresses