Untold Internet: Anyone Can Help Establish Standards

December 21, 2015

One of the most interesting historical features of the Internet is that the protocols were—and still are—free and open to anyone to build upon. Anyone with a good idea was (and is) encouraged to make suggestions for new or improved Internet protocols.

One of the key ways this happens is through the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The IETF is the principal organization engaged in the development of new Internet standard specifications, and the way it does this is uniquely transparent and democratic.

Just as the Internet is shaped by its users, the work of the IETF is determined by its own participants—and any individual with relevant experience can participate. Drawing on extensive technical experience developing, deploying, and using Internet technology, IETF participants include network designers, engineers, operators, vendors, and researchers from around the world who care about the evolution and operation of Internet architecture. 

Good ideas come in all shapes and sizes. Ukrainian Mykyta Yevstifeyev authored an IETF Request for Comment (RFC) a few years ago. When IETF leaders invited him to attend a meeting, Mykyta informed them his mother wouldn’t let him leave the country alone; he was only 16 years old.

It’s not surprising the IETF didn’t know Mykyta was only 16. There is no membership, and no barrier to entry. Working groups are organized according to a specific technical problem, and individuals can choose to participate according to interest and expertise. Participants collaborate on an issue by email until organizational leaders, such as working group chairs and members of the Internet Engineering Steering Group, determine when rough consensus has been reached. Currently, there are about 130 active working groups. Aligning with the Open Stand principles of due process, broad consensus, transparency, balance, and openness, the IETF makes every standards draft, all working group discussions, and all final standards available online at no cost.

Examples of successful IETF standards include IPv6 and international domain names (which enable billions of people around the world to use email and web addresses in their own language), as well as email (SMTP, POP and IMAP) email attachments (MIME), Presence and Voice over IP (SIP) and security protocols TLS/SSL.  Some of the issues currently guiding the IETF’s work include pervasive surveillance and the Internet of Things.

It’s important to note that once a standard is agreed upon, there is no mandate that it be adopted. Instead, it is only accepted as a standard if the community it was built for agrees that it is, in fact, the best protocol. This is the hallmark of a truly ‘open’ system that reflects the spirit of a global Internet.

Authored by Internet Hall of Fame inductee Elizabeth Feinler, this is the last in a three-part series, the 'Untold Internet', exploring some of the more unfamiliar aspects of Internet history.  


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