Why the IETF and Open Standards Matter


The Internet is by all means a technological phenomenon. It is an open, accessible, and user-centric platform for human self-realization. It allows us to seamlessly and dependably connect with one another; it enables freedom of expression; it allows individuals to create, share, and collaborate. At the core of the Internet’s existence and continued evolution are its open, decentralized nature, resilience, and the ability to innovate at the edges. The Internet’s open technological standards are what underpin its rapid growth; and they are of critical importance to its continued vitality and utility. Open standards are what permit an employee connected to a corporate network in Brisbane to communicate with a villager accessing the Internet through a wireless community network in Sao Paulo.

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is the primary entity responsible for establishing the Internet’s open standards and best practices – standards for networking protocols, infrastructure, software, operations, maintenance, and security.

The IETF is a large open international community of network designers, operators, vendors, and researchers concerned with the evolution of the Internet architecture and the smooth operation of the Internet. It produces standards and best practices that influence the way people design, use, and manage specific aspects and segments of the Internet. Participants volunteer their time to develop and refine protocols that are useful to organizations, manufacturers, and vendors who utilize the Internet. The IETF is open to any individual who wants to participate. The actual technical work of the IETF is done in its working groups, which are organized by topic into several areas (e.g., routing, transport, security, etc.). Individuals become involved by subscribing to one of the IETF working group mailing lists and offering technically competent input on a standard being developed by that group.

The open, democratic, and merit-based nature of this structure allows thousands of people from around the world to contribute to the IETF’s work. As many as 1400 individuals from more than 50 countries participate in each of the meetings of the IETF and its working groups. Many persons do not attend the meetings in person, but are involved through online collaboration tools or via the mailing lists. Anyone on a working group mailing list can propose a new standard or best practice. If the proposer can generate sufficient support from others, the working group may decide to take on development. A well-defined review process assures that the final document follows sound network engineering principles, meets security requirements, and is consistent with other Internet processes.

The IETF and each of its working groups make all decisions by consensus. Final accepted standards are based on the combined engineering judgment of participants and real world experience in deploying, operating, and administering IETF specifications. The great majority of work performed by the IETF and its working groups is done by email. Three international meetings are held each year, each lasting a full week. These provide opportunities for participants to meet one another face-to-face, to network, and to generate support for initiating new standards or best practices.

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