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On the Politics of Standards

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This is an older version of an Internet-Draft whose latest revision state is "Replaced".
Authors Niels ten Oever , Andrew Sullivan
Last updated 2017-07-02
Replaced by draft-irtf-hrpc-political
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Human Rights Protocol Considerations Research Group         N. ten Oever
Internet-Draft                                                ARTICLE 19
Intended status: Informational                               A. Sullivan
Expires: January 1, 2018                                          Oracle
                                                           June 30, 2017

                      On the Politics of Standards


   This document aims to outline different views on the relation between
   protocols and politics and seeks to answer the question whether
   protocols are political.

Status of This Memo

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   This Internet-Draft will expire on January 1, 2018.

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Table of Contents

   1.  Introduction  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   2
   2.  Vocabulary Used . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   3
   3.  Literature and Positions  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   3
     3.1.  Politics  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   3
     3.2.  Technology is value neutral . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   3
     3.3.  Some protocols are political some times . . . . . . . . .   3
     3.4.  The network has its own logic and values  . . . . . . . .   4
     3.5.  Protocols are inherently political  . . . . . . . . . . .   4
   4.  The need for a positioning  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   5
   5.  The way forward . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   6
   6.  Security Considerations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   6
   7.  IANA Considerations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   6
   8.  Acknowledgements  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   6
   9.  Research Group Information  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   6
   10. References  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   6
     10.1.  Informative References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   6
     10.2.  URIs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   9
   Authors' Addresses  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   9

1.  Introduction

    "we shape our tools and thereafter they shape us"

                             -John Culkin

   The design of the Internet through protocols and standards is a
   technical issue with great poltical and econmic impacts [RFC0603].
   The early Internet community already realized that it needed to make
   decisions on political issues such as Intellectual Property Rights,
   Internationzalization [BramanI], diversity, access [RFC0101] privacy
   and security [RFC0049], and the military [RFC0164] [RFC0316],
   governmental [RFC0144] [RFC0286] [RFC0313] [RFC0542] [RFC0549] and
   non-governmental [RFC0196] uses, which has been clearly pointed out
   by Braman [BramanII].

   Recently there has been an increased discussion on the relation
   between Internet protocols and human rights [hrpc] which spurred the
   discussion on the political nature of protocols.  In this document we
   aim to outline different views on the relation between protocols and
   politics and seek to answer the question whether protocols are

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2.  Vocabulary Used

3.  Literature and Positions

   While discussing the impact of protocols on human rights, different
   positions could be differentiated.  Without judging them on their
   internal or external consistency they are represented here.

3.1.  Politics

   [[CREF1: I suspect we have a problem that we haven't defined
   "politics", which is maybe what's causing some of the angst.  Should

3.2.  Technology is value neutral

   This position starts from the premise that the technical and poltical
   are differentiated fields and that technology is 'value free'.  This
   is also put more explicitly by Carey: "electronics is neither the
   arrival of apocalypse nor the dispensation of grace.  Technology is
   technology; it is a means for communication and transportation over
   space, and nothing more."  [Carey] In this view technology only
   become political when it is actually being used by humans.  So the
   technology itself is not political, the use of the technology is.
   This is view sees technology as instrument; "technologies are 'tools'
   standing ready to serve the purposes of their users.  Technology is
   deemed 'neutral,' without valuative content of its own."  [Feenberg].
   Feenberg continues: "technology is not inherently good or bad, and
   can be used to whatever political or social ends desired by the
   person or institution in control.  Technology is a 'rational entity'
   and universally applicable.  One may make exceptions on moral
   grounds, but one must also understand that the "price for the
   achievement of environmental, ethical, or religious
   reduced efficiency."  [Feenberg]

3.3.  Some protocols are political some times

   This stance is a pragmatic approach to the problem.  It states that
   some protocols under certain conditions can themselves have a
   political dimension.  This is different from the claim that a
   protocol might sometimes be used in a political way; that view is
   consistent with the idea of the technology being neutral (for the
   human action using the technology is where the politics lies).
   Instead, this position requires that each protocol and use be
   evaluated for its political dimension, in order to understand the
   extent to which it is political.

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3.4.  The network has its own logic and values

   While humans create techologies, that does not mean that they are
   forever under human control.  A technology, once created, has its own
   logic that is independent of the human actors that either create or
   use the technology.  [[CREF2: It seems like some references are
   needed here.  Not sure whether we want more generic or less -
   Heidegger's "Question" seems like a good start, but it's hardly about
   protocols.]]  The very existence of the
   automobile imposes physical forms on the world different from those
   that come from the electric tram or the horse-cart.  Under this view,
   the technology has its own needs and pressures, independent of those
   of human actors.  As it changes, it will change at least in part
   according to those needs and pressures.

   As a result, Internet protocols express at least to some extent the
   logic and values of the overall Internet technology.

3.5.  Protocols are inherently political

   On the other side of the spectrum there are the ones who insist that
   technology is non-neutral.  This is for instance made explicit by
   Postman where he writes: 'the uses made of technology are largely
   determined by the structure of the technology itself' [Postman].  He
   states that the medium itself 'contains an ideological bias'.  He
   continues to argue that technology is non-neutral:

   (1) because of the symbolic forms in which information is encoded,
   different media have different intellectual and emotional biases; (2)
   because of the accessibility and speed of their information,
   different media have different political biases; (3) because of their
   physical form, different media have different sensory biases; (4)
   because of the conditions in which we attend to them, different media
   have different social biases; (5) because of their technical and
   economic structure, different media have different content biases.

   More recent scholars of Internet infrastructure and governance have
   also pointed out that Internet processes and protocols have become
   part and parcel of political processes and public policies: one only
   has to look at the IANA transition, the RFC on pervasive monitoring
   [[CREF3: I have long felt that DeNardis's claim about RFC 7258
   embodies a misunderstanding of the IETF's stance.  P3 of sec 1 is
   pretty clear that the scope is carefully limited to a technical
   meaning of "attack".  I think this sentence is therefore too glib.
   The IANA transition, on the other hand, really was a political thing,
   but it's politics about protocols rather than protocols as politics.
   I think the passage following the Abbate quote is on stronger ground.

ten Oever & Sullivan     Expires January 1, 2018                [Page 4]
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   examples [DeNardis].  According to [Abbate]: "protocols are politics
   by other means".  This emphasises the interests that are at play in
   the process of designing standards.  This position holds further that
   protocols can never be understood without their contextual
   embeddedness: protocols do not exist solely by themselves but always
   are to be understood in a more complex context - the stack, hardware,
   or nation-state interests and their impact on civil rights.  Finally,
   this view is that that protocols are political because they affect or
   sometimes effect the socio-technical ordering of reality.  The latter
   observation leads Winner to conclude that the reality of
   technological progress has too often been a scenario where the
   innovation has dictated change for society.  Those who had the power
   to introduce a new technology also had the power to create a consumer
   class to use the technology, 'with new practices, relationships, and
   identities supplanting the old, --and those who had the wherewithal
   to implement new technologies often molded society to match the needs
   of emerging technologies and organizations.'  [Winner]

4.  The need for a positioning

   It is indisputable that the Internet plays an increasing and
   increasingly important role in the lives of citizens.  Those who
   produce interoperability standards for the Internet infrastructure
   are to some extent automatically implicated in that development.
   That said, the IETF is not the protocol police.  It cannot, and
   should not, ordain what standards are to be used on the networks.
   The RFC producing community should not go outside of its mission to
   advocate for a specific use of protocols.  At the same time, it may
   be useful for those producing Internet standards to take into account
   the political aspects or implications of that work.  Some structure
   for doing so may be helpful both to authors of standards documents
   and for the IETF.

   The risk of not doing doing this is threefold: (1) the IETF might
   make decisions which have a political impact that was not intended by
   the community, (2) other bodies or entities might make the decisions
   for the IETF because the IETF does not have an explicit stance, (3)
   other bodies that do take these issues into account might increase in
   importance on behest of the influence of the IETF.

   This does not mean the IETF does not have position on particular
   political issues.  The policies for open and diverse participation
   [RFC7706], the anti-harassment policy [RFC7776], as well as the
   Guidelines for Privacy Considerations [RFC6973] are testament of
   this.  But these are all examples of positions about the IETF's work
   processes or product.  What is absent is a way for IETF participants

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   to evaluate their stance with respect to the wider implications of
   that IETF work.

5.  The way forward

   There are instruments that can help the IETF develop an approach to
   address the politics of protocls, part of this can be found in draft-
   irtf-hrpc-research as well as the United National Guiding Principles
   for Business and Human Rights [UNGP].  But there is not a one-size-
   fits-all solution.  The IETF is a particular organization, with a
   particular mandate, and even if a policy is in place, its success
   depends on the implementation of the policy by the community.

6.  Security Considerations

   As this draft concerns a research document, there are no security

7.  IANA Considerations

   This document has no actions for IANA.

8.  Acknowledgements

9.  Research Group Information

   The discussion list for the IRTF Human Rights Protocol Considerations
   working group is located at the e-mail address [1].
   Information on the group and information on how to subscribe to the
   list is at:

   Archives of the list can be found at:

10.  References

10.1.  Informative References

   [Abbate]   Abbate, J., "Inventing the Internet", MIT Press , 2000,

   [BramanI]  Braman, S., "Internationalization of the Internet by
              design: The first decade", Global Media and Communication,
              Vol 8, Issue 1, pp. 27 - 45 , 2012, <

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              Braman, S., "The Framing Years: Policy Fundamentals in the
              Internet Design Process, 1969-1979", The Information
              Society Vol. 27, Issue 5, 2011 , 2010, <

   [Carey]    Carey, J., "Communication As Culture", p. 139 , 1992.

              Denardis, L., "The Internet Design Tension between
              Surveillance and Security", IEEE Annals of the History of
              Computing (volume 37-2) , 2015, <>.

              Feenberg, A., "Critical Theory of Technology", p.5-6 ,

   [hrpc]     ten Oever, N. and C. Cath, "Research into Human Rights
              Protocol Considerations", 2017,

   [Postman]  Postman, N., "Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to
              Technology", Vintage: New York. pp. 3-20. , 1992.

   [RFC0049]  Meyer, E., "Conversations with S. Crocker (UCLA)", RFC 49,
              DOI 10.17487/RFC0049, April 1970,

   [RFC0101]  Watson, R., "Notes on the Network Working Group meeting,
              Urbana, Illinois, February 17, 1971", RFC 101,
              DOI 10.17487/RFC0101, February 1971,

   [RFC0144]  Shoshani, A., "Data sharing on computer networks",
              RFC 144, DOI 10.17487/RFC0144, April 1971,

   [RFC0164]  Heafner, J., "Minutes of Network Working Group meeting,
              5/16 through 5/19/71", RFC 164, DOI 10.17487/RFC0164, May
              1971, <>.

   [RFC0196]  Watson, R., "Mail Box Protocol", RFC 196,
              DOI 10.17487/RFC0196, July 1971,

   [RFC0286]  Forman, E., "Network Library Information System", RFC 286,
              DOI 10.17487/RFC0286, December 1971,

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   [RFC0313]  O'Sullivan, T., "Computer based instruction", RFC 313,
              DOI 10.17487/RFC0313, March 1972,

   [RFC0316]  McKay, D. and A. Mullery, "ARPA Network Data Management
              Working Group", RFC 316, DOI 10.17487/RFC0316, February
              1972, <>.

   [RFC0542]  Neigus, N., "File Transfer Protocol", RFC 542,
              DOI 10.17487/RFC0542, August 1973,

   [RFC0549]  Michener, J., "Minutes of Network Graphics Group meeting,
              15-17 July 1973", RFC 549, DOI 10.17487/RFC0549, July
              1973, <>.

   [RFC0603]  Burchfiel, J., "Response to RFC 597: Host status",
              RFC 603, DOI 10.17487/RFC0603, December 1973,

   [RFC6973]  Cooper, A., Tschofenig, H., Aboba, B., Peterson, J.,
              Morris, J., Hansen, M., and R. Smith, "Privacy
              Considerations for Internet Protocols", RFC 6973,
              DOI 10.17487/RFC6973, July 2013,

   [RFC7706]  Kumari, W. and P. Hoffman, "Decreasing Access Time to Root
              Servers by Running One on Loopback", RFC 7706,
              DOI 10.17487/RFC7706, November 2015,

   [RFC7776]  Resnick, P. and A. Farrel, "IETF Anti-Harassment
              Procedures", BCP 25, RFC 7776, DOI 10.17487/RFC7776, March
              2016, <>.

   [UNGP]     Ruggie, J. and United Nations, "United Nations Guiding
              Principles for Business and Human Rights", 2011,

   [Winner]   Winner, L., "Who will we be in cyberspace?", 1995,

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10.2.  URIs


Authors' Addresses

   Niels ten Oever


   Andrew Sullivan


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