The Admirable IETF Reform Process

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is engaged in a lengthy bout of self-criticism and attempts to reform the processes by which it creates the Internet standards most of us don't know but love. (If you want a short intro to the IETF, it has a sort of self description and a sort of mission statement.)

Very much in line with the open, participatory ethos I described in Toward a Critical Theory of Cyberspace, the IETF is going about the project of trying to make itself better — a daunting task in light of the self-perceived decline in both the speed and quality of new standards, various workflow difficulties including duplication of effort and inconsistent projects, plus the sense among some participants that the entity is no longer as effectively bottom up and democratic as it used to be. Rather than reject these claims, the IETF establishment, gently herded by IETF Chair Harald Tveit Alvestrand, is addressing these very difficult, sometimes intractable problems head-on. You can monitor their efforts at Status of change efforts within the IETF. The problem-statement working group charter and the problem-statement mailing list provide richer detail for those with the time to delve deep. So far, it's an impressive effort that I think largely justifies my claim that the IETF is the closest thing we've got going to Habermasian discourse in action.

Update: And here's a link to draft-ietf-problem-issue-statement-04.txt which lays it all out.

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8 Responses to The Admirable IETF Reform Process

  1. jeremy hunsinger says:

    Interestingly enough, this working group has a significant overlap with the IETF intellectual property rights working group, which is working on revising the ipr rules of ietf.

    I think that if you analyze the discourse closely you will quickly see that it has few of the elements of habermasian discourse for a wide variety of reasons, but my opinion on that may differ from yours. Though i do see the attempt at revision to be admirable.

  2. Michael says:

    I haven’t followed the IPR stuff that closely, but I was under the impression that the main goals were to prevent anyone misusing RFCs to get a privileged position for their proprietary intellectual property. On the whole that seems not inconsistent with a Habermasian vision of how the standards process should work. What sort of strategic behavior are you seeing that makes this summary over-idealized?

  3. jeremy hunsinger says:

    well you have to follow it fairly closely to see that it is primarily about preserving privileged positions in a strategic manner. There is a method of exclusion and disenfranchisment at play based on how long you’ve been in ietf, what you have contributed to, however, unlike a true meritocratic system it is not purely open, there are all manner of methods of shutting something down and preventing it from entering various stages. For instance, they have a ‘rule’ where you cannot post too much as an individual, so if you are being replied to by 10 people, and you respond to each in kind, your ratio of posts becomes 10-1 and thus you are preventing others from speaking, thus you can be banned from speaking….. then there is the backrooming, people email off list as much as on list, that discussion is ‘private’ but has affects on the central discussion.

  4. Ned Freed says:

    I know of no rule that specifically limits the number of postings a person can make. It is sometimes suggested that people try and avoid shooting from the hip”, that is, replying to everything immediately and without thinking things through. It has also been suggested that folks consolidate replies to multiple parties when possible. But these are suggestions, and suggestions fall far short of rules.

    At least one list (ipv6) has taken the step of posting a periodic summary of who the most prolific posters are and how much they have posted. I think this is an interesting and beneficial step because it is fairly common for people to be unaware to what extent they have come to monopolize the conversation.

    Now, there is a policy that says that a person’s ability to post to a list may be suspended as a last resort if they have engaged in “behavior on a mailing list which disrupts the WG’s progress”. See RFC 2418 section 3.2. However, this step has rarely been taken. It was taken recently on the IPR list. See:

    for a list of the factors that were considered by the AD for the IPR group. Posting volume was a factor here, but absolutely not the only one.

    The issue of off-list discussions is an interesting one. Somtimes discussions between a small group of parties need to be done privately in order for progress to be made. This is OK as long as all choices are reviewed on the public list, just as decisions made in F2F meetings have to be. (Again, see RFC 2418 section 3.2.)

    My one concern with this has always been that sometimes I want to go back and research all the inputs that led to a particular technical decision being made. Off list discussions (and F2F meetings as well — minutes are almost never sufficiently detailed for this sort of thing) can make this sort of historical research difficult. But there really is no choice here: Off-list discussions and F2F meetings are vital tools for reaching consensus that we really cannot do without.

    Disclaimer: I’m one of the two Applications Area Directors and hence a member of the IESG.

  5. jeremy hunsinger says:

    specific rules perhaps don’t exist, but the applications of norms as rules in interesting and occasionally questionable manner has occured. i’m only aware of the ipr instance and one other personally, but i find it interesting the way it worked out in the end, especially in context of a speech-act situation where various tools are available and used for some but perhaps not others. But i am somewhat interested in the norms and expectation that proliferate in ietf.

  6. Michael says:

    I don’t support boucing people from lists in the IETF or elsewhere, but I have to say that I’m much less offended by it when the person in question is threatening other list members. Which I know was the case in the IPR list incident.

  7. jeremy hunsinger says:

    yes, threatening lawsuit, etc. but i think that there is probably an explanation as to why he thought that was necessary. i mean if you think about how frustrating it can be for some people having to explain their position then trying to make arguments in relation to others, repeatedly, etc. there is quite a bit of imperfection in the discursive space on lists, so and it isn’t as easy just to tell people to read the archives, etc. beyond that, many of these more organizational/law/norm lists seem to have people who are just not able to understand the other position, though they claim to understand, etc.

  8. jeremy hunsinger says:

    not to change topics, but how many studies on ietf are there, I know of some from SLIS, which was presented at Internet Research 2.0 and I met a gentleman at another conference that was working on studying ietf processes as a dissertation chapter in a dissertation on the history of standards. I can find more appropriate citations if other people know of others and want to build up a list.

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