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Where now for the IETF?

by Scott Bradner

Last week I was interviewed by a reporter for a publication that covers the traditional telephony world. One of the questions I was asked went along the lines of 'now that the Internet has become so important to the world's economy and with all the convergence with the telephone world, is it time to move away from the informal IETF standards process and to a more traditional one?' I had the feeling of being caught in a time warp. Where had this reporter been these last dozen years?

I think the first time I heard a question like that was in the late 1980's. It seems that, in the parlance of the time, they just don't get it. But the Internet's high profile means that more and more people who don't get it and who are in positions of authority in corporations or governments are trying to make the future more predictable by trying to control the Internet and the organizations, like the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), that have helped create it.

By one measure the Internet is 30 years old this month. It was 30 years ago that the first ARPANET nodes were installed. But for most people the Internet is still a youth having started its explosive growth with the introduction of the world wide web in the mid 1990's. Almost all of the Internet pioneers are still with us and still contributing. (For those readers who can receive the mbone there is a recording of the History of the Internet tutorial given a few weeks ago at Harvard at The major exception to this is Jon Postel who died just about a year ago.

The IETF ( is still very active and is still on the forefront of Internet development and I expect that to be the case for the foreseeable future. But there is a galaxy of other groups, some old but most new, that are trying to get into the Internet standards game. A few of the new ones seem to be a pure reaction to the perceived uncertainty in that they are composed of the standards' 'goers' (as opposed to the technology developers) from old telecommunications companies and are trying to make sure that business considerations play a role in Internet standards development (i.e. don't disrupt our business).

It seems that far too many of these worriers forget that it's employees of high-tech companies, including service providers, that drive the IETF and are not out to disrupt the economic boom that the Internet has brought.

I expect there will be some significant tensions in the future between the IETF and those organizations and governments that would like to moderate progress and I hope that the IETF can figure out how to deal with them in spite of the IETF's almost libertarian impulse to tell others where to go.

disclaimer: Harvards' vocabulary may make it hard to notice when it tells you where to go but the above scribble is mine alone.