Human Rights Protocol Considerations Research Group         N. ten Oever
Internet-Draft                                   University of Amsterdam
Intended status: Informational                        September 28, 2019
Expires: March 31, 2020

               Notes on networking standards and politics


   The IETF cannot ordain what standards or protocols are to be used on
   networks, but the standards development process in the IETF does have
   an impact on society through its normative standards setting process.
   This document aims to bring about a better understanding on the
   political nature of standards and protocols.  Among other things, the
   IETF's work affects what is perceived as technologically possible and
   useful where networking technologies are being deployed, and its
   standards reflect what is considered by the technical community to be
   feasible and good practice.  Whereas there might not be agreement
   among the Internet protocol community on the specific political
   nature of the technological development process and its outputs, it
   is generally agreed that standards and protocols are both products of
   a political process, and they can also be used for political means.

Status of This Memo

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Copyright Notice

   Copyright (c) 2019 IETF Trust and the persons identified as the
   document authors.  All rights reserved.

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Table of Contents

   1.  Introduction  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   2
   2.  Vocabulary Used . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   4
   3.  Research Question . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   4
   4.  Technology and Politics: a review of literature and community
       positions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   5
     4.1.  Technology is value neutral . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   5
     4.2.  Some protocols are political sometimes  . . . . . . . . .   6
     4.3.  All protocols are political sometimes . . . . . . . . . .   6
     4.4.  The network of networks has its own logic and values  . .   6
     4.5.  Protocols are inherently political  . . . . . . . . . . .   7
   5.  Discussion  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   8
   6.  Conclusion  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   9
   7.  Security Considerations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  10
   8.  IANA Considerations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  10
   9.  Acknowledgments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  10
   10. Research Group Information  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  10
   11. References  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  10
     11.1.  Informative References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  10
     11.2.  URIs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  14
   Author's Address  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  14

1.  Introduction

   "Standards are recipes for reality."

                                  - Lawrence Busch

   "As standards emerge from contested contexts, that
      immediately function as a means of control within the
           political and economic order."

                                  - Andrew L. Russell

   "The Internet isn't value-neutral, and neither is the IETF."


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   Recently there has been increased discussion in the IRTF and IETF on
   the relation between Internet protocols and human rights [RFC8280],
   which spurred discussion of the value neutrality and political nature
   of standards.  The network infrastructure is on the one hand
   designed, described, developed, standardized and implemented by the
   Internet community, while on the other hand the Internet community
   and Internet users are affected by the technology.  Companies,
   citizens, governments, standards development bodies, public opinion
   and public interest groups all play a part in these discussions.
   This document outlines different views on the relation between
   politics, standards, and protocols, and seeks explore the question
   whether standards and protocols are political, and if so, how.

   This question in not necessarily a new one.  The design of the
   Internet, and its codification through protocols and standards, is a
   technical issue with great political and economic impacts, as is
   described in [RFC0613] and [RFC3271].  The early Internet community
   already realized that it needed to make decisions on political issues
   such as:

   -  internationalization, expanding the network outside of the United
      States [BramanI];

   -  access, how people are able to access the network, and who has
      control [RFC0101];

   -  privacy and security, what level of secrecy should be considered
      and expected on the network [BramanIII];

   as well as use of the network by different groups with different
   needs and requirements, such as:

   -  the military [RFC0164] [RFC0316];

   -  governments [RFC0144] [RFC0286] [RFC0313] [RFC0542] [RFC0549];

   -  and non-governmental entities [RFC0196].

   Sandra Braman has foregrounded these political consideration in
   historical RFC in her extensively analysis of these documents
   [BramanII].  This document seeks to understand how this is relevant
   for current day Internet standardization and protocol design.  The
   coordinating of transnational stakeholders in a process of
   negotiation and agreement through the development of common rules is
   a form of global governance [Nadvi].  Standards are among the
   mechanisms by which this governance is achieved, although this
   process is not exclusively undertaken by transnational corporations.
   Conformance to certain standards is often a basic condition of

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   participation so there are strong economic and political incentives
   to conform, even in the absence of legal requirements [Russell].

   This documents builds on that research and seeks to increase
   understanding about what this means in the context of Internet
   protocols and the entities that design, develop, and standardize

2.  Vocabulary Used

   Politics  (from Greek: Politika: Politika, definition "affairs of the
      commons") is the process of making decisions applying to all
      members of a diverse group with conflicting interests.  More
      narrowly, it refers to achieving and exercising positions of
      governance or organized control over a community.  Furthermore,
      politics is the study or practice of the distribution of power and
      resources within a given community as well as the
      interrelationship(s) between communities. (adapted from

   Affordances  The possibilities that are provided to an actor through
      the ordering of an environment by a technology.  This means that a
      technology does not determine what is possible, but that it
      invites specific kinds of behavior, and in that process shapes the
      behavior of users, without aboslutely determining it.

   Protocols  'Protocols are rules governing communication between
      devices or applications, and the creation or manipulation of any
      logical or communicative artifacts concomitant with such
      communication.'  [Sisson]

   Standards  'A standard is an agreed-upon way of doing something or
      measuring something.'  [Sisson]

   Internet Standards  'An Internet Standard is a specification that is
      stable and well-understood, is technically competent, has
      multiple, independent, and interoperable implementations with
      substantial operational experience, enjoys significant public
      support, and is recognizably useful in some or all parts of the
      Internet.'  [RFC2026]

3.  Research Question

   To bring about a better understanding on the political nature of
   standards and protocols, this documents asks the questions: If, and
   if so how, are protocols, standards, and politics interrelated?
   Exploring this question aims to inform discussions in the IETF, IRTF,
   and the wider Internet infrastructure and architecture community.

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4.  Technology and Politics: a review of literature and community

   In 1993 the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility stated
   that 'the Internet should meet public interest objectives'.
   Similarly, [RFC3935] states that 'The Internet isn't value-neutral,
   and neither is the IETF.'.  Ethics and the Internet was already a
   topic of an RFC by the IAB in 1989 [RFC1087], when the Internet was
   still looking entirely different.  Nonetheless there has been a
   recent uptick in discussions within the IETF and IRTF about the
   impact of Internet protocols on human rights [RFC8280], and more
   generally in public debate about the impact of technology on society.

   This document aims to provide an overview of the spectrum of
   different positions that have been observed in the IETF and IRTF
   community, and have been observed during interviews, mailinglist
   exchanges, and during research group sessions.  These positions were
   observed during participatory observation, through 39 interviews with
   members of the community, the Human Rights Protocol Considerations
   Research Group mailing list, and during and after the Technical
   Plenary on Protocols and Human Rights during IETF98.

   Without judging them on their internal or external consistency they
   are represented here.  Where possible we also sought to engage with
   the academic literature on this topic.

4.1.  Technology is value neutral

   This position starts from the premise that the technical and
   political 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
   protocols 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 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].

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4.2.  Some protocols are political sometimes

   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 implies that protocols could be evaluated for
   its political dimension, in order to understand the extent to which
   it is political.

4.3.  All protocols are political sometimes

   While not an absolutist standpoint it recognizes that all design
   decisions are subject to the law of unintended consequences,
   especially in a context where the interrelation between protocols is
   hard to predict.  The system consisting of the Internet and its users
   is vastly complex; it is chaotic in nature; standards are voluntary;
   and therefore its emergent properties cannot be predicted.  This
   concept strongly hinges on the general purpose aspect of information
   technology and its malleability.  Whereas not all (potential)
   behaviours, affordances and impacts of protocols can possibly be
   predicted, one could, as a point of departure, consider the impact of
   proposed implementations.

4.4.  The network of networks has its own logic and values

   While humans create technologies, this 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.

   From this perspective, technologies can shape the world.  As Martin
   Heidegger says, "The hydroelectric plant is not built into the Rhine
   River as was the old wooden bridge that joined bank with bank for
   hundreds of years.  Rather the river is dammed up into the power
   plant.  What the river is now, namely, a water power supplier,
   derives from out of the essence of the power station."  [Heidegger]
   (p 16) The dam in the river changes the world in a way the bridge
   does not, because the dam alters the nature of the river.

   In the same way - in another and more recent example - the very
   existence of automobiles imposes physical forms on the world
   different from those that come from the electric tram or the horse-
   cart.  The logic of the automobile means speed and the rapid covering
   of distance, which encourages suburban development and a tendency
   toward conurbation.  But even if that did not happen, widespread

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   automobile use requires paved roads, and parking lots and structures.
   These are pressures that come from the automotive technology itself,
   and would not arise without that technology.

   In much same way, then, networking technology, such as protocols,
   creates its own demands.  One of the most important conditions for a
   protocol's success is its incremental deployability [RFC5218].  This
   means that the network already contains constraints on what can be
   deployed into it.  In this sense the network of networks creates its
   own paths, but also has its own objective.  According to this view
   the goal of the network of networks is interconnection and
   connectivity; more connectivity is good for the network of networks.
   Proponents of this positions also often describe the Internet as an
   organism with its own unique ecosystem.

   In this position it is not necessarily clear where the 'social' ends
   and the 'technical' begins, and it could be argued that the
   distinction itself is a social construction [BijkerLaw] or that a
   real-life distinction between the two is hard to make [Bloor].

4.5.  Protocols are inherently political

   This position argues the opposite of 'technological neutrality'.
   This position is illustrated by Postman when 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;

   (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.

   Recent scholars of Internet infrastructure and governance have also
   pointed out that Internet processes and standards have become part
   and parcel of political processes and public policies.  Several
   concrete examples are found within this approach, for instance, the
   IANA transition or global innovation policy [DeNardis].  The Raven

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   process in which the IETF refused to standardize wiretapping - which
   resulted in [RFC2804] - was an instance where an international
   governance body took a position that was perceived by many as
   political, although driven by a technical argument.  The process that
   led to [RFC7258] is similar: the Snowden disclosures, which occurred
   in the political space, engendered the IETF to act.  While [RFC2804]
   was a statement about how a protocol for wiretapping would _not_ be
   developed, [RFC7258] was a statement that contributed to the
   development of protocols such as [RFC7858], [RFC8226], and [RFC8404].
   The impact of political tensions on protocol development is
   summarized in [Abbate] who says: "protocols are politics by other
   means," emphasizing the interests that are at play in the process of
   designing standards.

   This position further holds 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 protocols are
   political because they influence the socio-technical workings of
   reality and society.  The latter observation leads Winner to conclude
   that the reality of technological progress has too often been a
   scenario where innovation has dictated change for society.  Those who
   had the power to introduce a new technology also had the power to
   largely frame the uses of 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].

5.  Discussion

   Economics, competition, collaboration, openness, and political impact
   have been an inherent part of the work of the IETF since its early
   beginnings [Russell] [BramanII] [Abbate].  The IETF cannot ordain
   which standards are to be used on the networks, and it specifically
   does not determine the laws of regions or countries where networks
   are being used, but it does set open standards for interoperability
   on the Internet, and has done so for many of the Internet's formative
   years.  Because a standard is the blue-print for how to accomplish a
   particular task, the adopted standards have a normative effect.  The
   standardization work at the IETF has direct implications on what is
   perceived as technologically possible and useful where networking
   technologies are being deployed, and thus its standards reflect what
   is considered by the technical community as feasible and good

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   Whereas there might not be agreement among the Internet protocol
   community on the specific political nature of the technological
   development process and its outputs, there is a general consensus
   among scholars in the fields of Science and Technology Studies and
   Philosopht of Technology, that technology in general, and standards
   in specific can be:

   -  a mean for political activity (for instance by using a tool (or
      protocol) to suppress freedom of expression or enhance citizenship

   -  an object of political activity or deliberation (this can be
      foregrounded by asking who is making the decision about protocols?
      Is it democratic and legitimate?  Who is excluded in these spaces
      of decision about protocols/standards?  Who should be included,
      why, and how?), ans as

   -  the setting of political activity (this is analyzing by asking
      what are the constraints and possibilities of our particular
      technological culture?  How is the history of this technological
      culture affecting our choices today?  [Barney]

   This opinion is not widely shared with the IRTF and IETF.  There it
   is generally agreed that standards and protocols can be products of a
   political process, and they can be used for political means, but that
   this is not always the case.

6.  Conclusion

   While understanding that 'standards emerge from contested contexts,
   they immediately function as a means of control within the political
   and economic order' [Russell], protocols and standards as abstract
   isolated artefacts might not be political, but their design,
   development, deployment, and implementation often is.  Therefore we
   might need to give a qualified answer to the research question, in
   the sense that protocols can only be understood in part outside of
   their actual shaping, use, and applied function, which is political.
   There is no consensus with the Human Rights Protocol Consideration
   Research Group whether this is always the case, or only in specific

   Further research could explore how the political nature of the
   design, development, standardization, and deployment of protocols can
   be taken into account in the standards development process in order
   to (1) to minimize negative unintended social consequences, (2)
   ensure clear understanding of the intended consequences, (3) maintain
   importance of the IETF as open standards body that facilitates global

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7.  Security Considerations

   As this draft concerns a research document, there are no security
   considerations as described in [RFC3552], which does not mean that
   not addressing the issues brought up in this draft will not impact
   the security of end-users or operators.

8.  IANA Considerations

   This document has no actions for IANA.

9.  Acknowledgments

   Thanks to Michael Rogers, Joe Hall, Andrew Sullivan, Brian Carpenter,
   Mark Perkins, S Moonesamy, Stephen Farrell, Amelia Andersdotter,
   Stephane Couture, and all contributors and reviewers on the hrpc
   mailinglist.  Special thanks to Gisela Perez de Acha for some
   thorough editing rounds.

10.  Research Group Information

   The discussion list for the IRTF Human Rights Protocol Considerations
   Research Group is located at the e-mail address [1].
   Information on the group and information on how to subscribe to the
   list is at: [2]

   Archives of the list can be found at:
   archive/web/hrpc/current/index.html [3]

11.  References

11.1.  Informative References

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

   [Barney]   Barney, D., "One nation under google", Hart House Lecture
              2007 , 2007, <

              Bijker, W. and J. Law, "Shaping Technology/ Building
              Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change", Cambridge, MA:
              MIT Press , 1992.

   [Bloor]    Bloor, D., "Knowledge and Social Imagery", London:
              Routeledge & Kegan Paul , 1976.

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

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

              Braman, S., "Privacy by design: Networked computing,
              1969-1979", New Media & Society, 14(5), 798-814, 2011. ,
              2011, <

   [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 ,

              Hague, R. and M. Harrop, "Comparative Government and
              Politics: An Introduction", Macmillan International Higher
              Education. pp. 1-. ISBN 978-1-137-31786-5. , 2013.

              Heidegger, M., "The Question Concerning Technology and
              Other Essays", Garland: New York, 1977 , 1977,

   [Nadvi]    Nadvi, K. and F. Waeltring, "Making sense of global
              standards", In: H. Schmitz (Ed.), Local enterprises in the
              global economy (pp. 53-94). Cheltenham, UK: Edward
              Elgar. , 2004.

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

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   [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,

   [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, <>.

   [RFC0613]  McKenzie, A., "Network connectivity: A response to RFC
              603", RFC 613, DOI 10.17487/RFC0613, January 1974,

   [RFC1087]  Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Internet
              Activities Board, "Ethics and the Internet", RFC 1087,
              DOI 10.17487/RFC1087, January 1989,

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   [RFC2026]  Bradner, S., "The Internet Standards Process -- Revision
              3", BCP 9, RFC 2026, DOI 10.17487/RFC2026, October 1996,

   [RFC2804]  IAB and IESG, "IETF Policy on Wiretapping", RFC 2804,
              DOI 10.17487/RFC2804, May 2000,

   [RFC3271]  Cerf, V., "The Internet is for Everyone", RFC 3271,
              DOI 10.17487/RFC3271, April 2002,

   [RFC3552]  Rescorla, E. and B. Korver, "Guidelines for Writing RFC
              Text on Security Considerations", BCP 72, RFC 3552,
              DOI 10.17487/RFC3552, July 2003,

   [RFC3935]  Alvestrand, H., "A Mission Statement for the IETF",
              BCP 95, RFC 3935, DOI 10.17487/RFC3935, October 2004,

   [RFC5218]  Thaler, D. and B. Aboba, "What Makes for a Successful
              Protocol?", RFC 5218, DOI 10.17487/RFC5218, July 2008,

   [RFC7258]  Farrell, S. and H. Tschofenig, "Pervasive Monitoring Is an
              Attack", BCP 188, RFC 7258, DOI 10.17487/RFC7258, May
              2014, <>.

   [RFC7858]  Hu, Z., Zhu, L., Heidemann, J., Mankin, A., Wessels, D.,
              and P. Hoffman, "Specification for DNS over Transport
              Layer Security (TLS)", RFC 7858, DOI 10.17487/RFC7858, May
              2016, <>.

   [RFC8226]  Peterson, J. and S. Turner, "Secure Telephone Identity
              Credentials: Certificates", RFC 8226,
              DOI 10.17487/RFC8226, February 2018,

   [RFC8280]  ten Oever, N. and C. Cath, "Research into Human Rights
              Protocol Considerations", RFC 8280, DOI 10.17487/RFC8280,
              October 2017, <>.

   [RFC8404]  Moriarty, K., Ed. and A. Morton, Ed., "Effects of
              Pervasive Encryption on Operators", RFC 8404,
              DOI 10.17487/RFC8404, July 2018,

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   [Russell]  Russell, A., "Open standards and the digital age: History,
              ideology, and networks", Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
              University Press , 2014.

   [Sisson]   Sisson, D., "Standards and Protocols", 2000,

   [Winner]   Winner, L., "Upon opening the black box and finding it
              empty: Social constructivism and the philosophy of
              technology", Science, Technology, and Human Values 18 (3)
              p. 362-378 , 1993.

11.2.  URIs




Author's Address

   Niels ten Oever
   University of Amsterdam


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