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Standards as weapons

By Scott Bradner

Network World, 09/07/98

There was something wrong with the picture.

Some reports from the recent International Forum on the White Paper
(IFWP) meeting in Singapore said that people were plotting to put the
IETF under the control of the "new Internet Assigned Numbers
Authority (IANA)" organization.

This would be somewhat like a random third party telling Greenpeace
that the environmental organization was now to operate under the
control of the whaling industry association. Things could get sticky if
the people defining the new IANA actually thought they had such

For those of you who have not been paying attention, the IFWP
( has been holding meetings around the world to try
to come up with an organization to implement the recommendations in
the U.S. government's white paper on the management of some key
Internet infrastructure functions. At the same time, the IANA - the
organization that has been performing these functions since the start
of the Internet itself - has been soliciting comments on a series of
organizational plans for the new IANA. In addition, the IANA has
been trying to integrate IFWP comments and suggestions

At this time, it looks as if these two efforts may come together. But
this column is not about the effort to define a new IANA. Rather, it is
about a dream of control by some people who fear the open standards
development process as exemplified by the IETF.

The IETF is an international, independent, self-defining standards
development organization that has allied itself with the Internet
Society. The IETF's relationship with the current IANA is one where
the latter provides database maintenance and number assignment
functions. The IANA keeps the lists of the protocol numbers and
identification strings that have been defined by IETF standards. The
IANA does not tell the IETF what to do other than to request clarity in
any procedures the IETF defines to be used in assigning protocol
numbers and strings. The white paper proposes that this relationship
between the IETF and the new IANA organization continue.

But it is hardly a surprise that outsiders would like to control the
IETF. The standards that have been developed by the IETF and other
organizations, such as the World Wide Web Consortium, have
created the Internet as it is today. IETF standards have caused major
disruptions in many areas - particularly in the traditional
telecommunications industry - while at the same time challenging the
ability of governments to control the information their citizens see.

For the last few years, a number of governments, mostly in Europe,
have been trying to figure out how to "govern the technology," as one
observer put it. Governments and individual companies have a
significant voice in many "traditional" standards bodies but have no
specific voice in the IETF. Individuals are welcome to speak their
mind, but there is no specific governmental or company-based
influence over the management or technology evaluation in the
self-funded IETF.

When governments and organizations see their plans disrupted, it is
natural for them to want to push back and blunt the disruption. Now
they are trying again, but I predict they'll be unsuccessful.

Disclaimer: After more than 360 years, Harvard is used to the
concept of disruptions. But the above is my prediction.