Internet Engineering Task Force                               P. Resnick
Internet-Draft                               Qualcomm Technologies, Inc.
Intended status: Informational                            March 18, 2013
Expires: September 19, 2013

                  On Consensus and Humming in the IETF


   The IETF has had a long tradition of doing its technical work through
   a consensus process, taking into account the different views among
   IETF participants and coming to (at least rough) consensus on
   technical matters.  In particular, the IETF is supposed not to be run
   by a "majority rules" philosophy.  This is why we engage in rituals
   like "humming" instead of voting.  However, more and more of our
   actions are now indistinguishable from voting, and quite often we are
   letting the majority win the day, without consideration of minority
   concerns.  This document is a collection of thoughts on what rough
   consensus is, how we have gotten away from it, and the things we can
   do in order to really achieve rough consensus.

      Note: This document contains the musings of an individual.  Right
      now, it is just some rough notes and has lots of holes that need
      to be filled in.  Even if those holes are filled, in its current
      form, it is not intended to be published as an RFC, let alone
      being a BCP for a change of IETF policy.  If it evolves into such
      a thing, great.  If it simply sparks discussion as an Internet
      Draft, that's a perfectly fine outcome.

Status of This Memo

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   provisions of BCP 78 and BCP 79.

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   material or to cite them other than as "work in progress."

   This Internet-Draft will expire on September 19, 2013.

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Copyright Notice

   Copyright (c) 2013 IETF Trust and the persons identified as the
   document authors.  All rights reserved.

   This document is subject to BCP 78 and the IETF Trust's Legal
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   ( in effect on the date of
   publication of this document.  Please review these documents
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   described in the Simplified BSD License.

Table of Contents

   1.  Introduction  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   2
   2.  Lack of disagreement is more important than agreement . . . .   4
   3.  Rough consensus is achieved when all issues are addressed,
       but not necessarily accommodated  . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   6
   4.  Humming should be the start of a conversation, not the end  .   7
   5.  One Hundred people for and five people against might not be
       rough consensus . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   9
   6.  Five people for and one hundred people against might still be
       rough consensus . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  10
   7.  Security Considerations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  12
   8.  Informative References  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  12
   Appendix A.  Acknowledgements . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  13
   Author's Address  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  13

1.  Introduction

   Almost every IETF participant knows the aphorism from Dave Clark's
   1992 plenary presentation [Clark] regarding how we make decisions in
   the IETF:

      We reject: kings, presidents and voting.

      We believe in: rough consensus and running code.

   That is, our credo is that we don't let a single individual make the
   decisions, nor do we let the majority dictate decisions, nor do we
   allow decisions to be made in a vacuum without practical experience.
   Instead, decisions are made by (more or less) consent of all
   participants, and the actual products of engineering trump
   theoretical designs.  Our ideal is full consensus, but we don't
   require it: Full consensus would allow a single intransigent person

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   who simply keeps saying "No!"  to stop the process cold.  We only
   require rough consensus: If the chair of a working group determines
   that a technical issue brought forward by an objector has been truly
   considered by the working group, and the working group has made an
   informed decision that the objection has been answered or is not
   enough of a technical problem to prevent moving forward, the chair
   can declare that there is rough consensus to go forward, the
   objection notwithstanding.  To reinforce that we do not vote, we have
   also adopted the tradition of "humming": When (for example) the chair
   of the working group wants to get a "sense of the room", instead of a
   show of hands, the chair asks for each side to hum for or against a

   However, in recent years we have seen participants (including folks
   in IETF leadership) who do not understand some of the subtleties of
   consensus-based decision making.  Participants ask, "Why are we
   bothering with this 'humming' thing?  Wouldn't a show of hands be
   easier?  That way we could really see how many people want one thing
   over another."  Chairs are faced with factious working groups with
   polarized viewpoints and long-running unresolved issues that return
   again and again to the agenda.  More and more frequently, people walk
   away from working groups, thinking that "consensus" has created a
   document with horrible compromises to satisfy everyone's pet peeve
   instead of doing "the right thing".  None of these things are
   indicators of a rough consensus process being used, and are likely
   due to some basic misperceptions.

   This document attempts to explain some features of rough consensus,
   explain what is not rough consensus, and suggest ways that we might
   achieve rough consensus and judge it in the IETF.  Though this
   document describes some behaviors of working groups and chairs, it
   does so in broad brushstrokes and it is not intended to dictate
   specific procedures.  It is intended to foster understanding of the
   underlying principles of IETF consensus processes.

      Note: This document contains the musings of an individual.  Right
      now, it is just some rough notes and has lots of holes that need
      to be filled in.  Even if those holes are filled, in its current
      form, it is not intended to be published as an RFC, let alone
      being a BCP for a change of IETF policy.  If it evolves into such
      a thing, great.  If it simply sparks discussion as an Internet
      Draft, that's a perfectly fine outcome.

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2.  Lack of disagreement is more important than agreement

   A working group comes to a technical question of whether to use
   format A or format B for a particular data structure.  The chair
   notices that a number of experienced people think format A is a good
   choice.  The chair asks on the mailing, "Is everyone OK with format
   A?"  Inevitably, a number of people object to format A for one or
   another technical reason.  The chair then says, "It sounds like we
   don't have consensus to use format A.  Is everyone OK with format B?"
   This time even more people object to format B, on different technical
   grounds.  The chair, not having agreement on either format A or
   format B, is left perplexed, thinking the working group has

   The problem that the chair got themselves into in the above case was
   thinking that what they were searching for was agreement.  "After
   all", thinks the chair, "consensus is a matter of getting everyone to
   agree, so asking whether everyone agrees is what the chair ought to
   do.  And if lots of people disagree, there's no consensus."  But
   _determining_ consensus and _coming to_ consensus are different
   things than _having_ consensus.  Consensus is not when everyone is
   happy and agrees that the chosen solution is the best one.  Consensus
   is when everyone is sufficiently satisfied with the chosen solution,
   such that they do not object to it.  The distinction might be a bit
   subtle, but it's important.  Engineering always involves a set of
   tradeoffs.  It is almost certain that any time engineering choices
   need to be made, there will be options that appeal to some people
   that are not appealing to some others.  The key is to separate those
   choices that are simply unappealing from those that are truly
   problematic.  So in the case of a working group decision, it is most
   important to ask not just for objections to a particular proposal,
   but for the nature of those objections.  A chair who asks, "Is
   everyone OK with choice A?"  is going to get objections.  But a chair
   who asks, "Can anyone not live with choice A?"  is more likely to
   only hear from folks who think that choice A is impossible to
   engineer given some constraints.  Following up with, "What are the
   reasons you object to choice A?"  is also essential.  Then the
   purported failings of the choice can be examined by the working
   group.  The objector might convince the rest of the group that the
   objections are valid, or the working group might convince the
   objector that the concerns can be addressed, or that the choice is
   simply unappealing (i.e., something the objector can "live with") and
   not a show-stopper.  In any event, closure is much more likely to be
   achieved quickly by asking for and trying to accommodate the
   objections rather than asking for agreement.

   This also brings up an important point about reaching consensus and
   "compromising": Unfortunately, the word "compromise" gets used in two

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   different ways, and though one sort of compromising to come to
   consensus is good (and important), the other sort of compromising in
   order to achieve consensus is actually harmful.  As mentioned
   earlier, engineering always involves balancing tradeoffs, and
   figuring out whether one engineering decision makes more sense on
   balance compared to another involves making engineering
   "compromises": We might have to compromise processor speed for lower
   power consumption, or compromise throughput for congestion
   resistance.  Those sorts of compromises are among engineering
   choices, and they are expected and essential.  We always want to be
   weighing tradeoffs and collectively choosing the best set.  However,
   there is another sense of "compromise" that involves compromising
   between people, not engineering principles.  For example, a minority
   of a group might object to a particular proposal, and even after
   discussion still think the proposal is deeply problematic, but decide
   that they don't have the energy to argue for it and say, "Forget it,
   do what you want".  That surely can be called a compromise, but a
   chair might mistakenly take this to mean that they agree, and
   therefore come to consensus.  But really all that they've done is
   conceded; they've given up.  That's not coming to consensus; there
   still exists an outstanding unaddressed objection.  Even worse is the
   "horse-trading" sort of compromise: "I object to your proposal for
   such-and-so reasons.  You object to my proposal for this-and-that
   reason.  Neither of us agree.  If you stop objecting to my proposal,
   I'll stop objecting to your proposal and we'll put them both in."
   That again results in an "agreement" of sorts, but it also results in
   two outstanding unaddressed issues, again ignoring them for the sake
   of expedience.  These sorts of "giving up" or "horse-trading"
   compromises have no place in consensus decision making.  In each
   case, a chair who looks for "agreement" might find it in these
   examples because it appears that people have "agreed".  But again,
   answering technical disagreements is what is needed to achieve
   consensus, sometimes even when the people who stated the
   disagreements no longer wish to discuss them.

   Coming to consensus is when everyone comes to the conclusion that
   either the objections are valid (and therefore making a change to
   address the objection) or that the objection was not really a matter
   of importance, but merely a matter of taste.  Of course, coming to
   full consensus like that does not always happen.  That's why in the
   IETF, we talk about "rough consensus".

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3.  Rough consensus is achieved when all issues are addressed, but not
    necessarily accommodated

   The preceding discussion gives an example where the working group
   comes to consensus on a point: Either the objector is satisfied, or
   the working group is satisfied.  But that doesn't happen all of the
   time, and it's certainly not the problematic case.  Engineering is
   always a set of tradeoffs.  Often, a working group will encounter an
   objection where everyone understands the issue and acknowledges that
   it is a real shortcoming in the proposed solution, but the vast
   majority of the working group believe that accommodating the
   objection is not worth the tradeoff of fixing the problem.

   So, an objector might say, "The proposal to go with protocol X is
   much more complicated than going with protocol Y.  Protocol Y is a
   much more elegant and clean solution, which I can code much more
   easily, and protocol X is a hack."  The working group might consider
   this input, and someone might respond, "But we have a great deal of
   code already written that is similar to protocol X.  While I agree
   that protocol Y is more elegant, the risks to interoperability with
   an untested solution is not worth it compared to the advantages of
   going with the well-understood protocol X."  If the chair finds, in
   their technical judgement, that the issue has truly been considered,
   and that the vast majority of the working group has come to the
   conclusion that the tradeoff is worth making, even in the face of
   continued objection from the person(s) who raised the issue, the
   chair can declare that the group has come to rough consensus.

   Note that this portrays rough consensus as an "exception".  In one
   sense, it is: As a working group does its work and makes its choices,
   it behaves as if it is striving toward full consensus and tries to
   get all issues addressed to the satisfaction of everyone in the
   group, even those who originally held objections.  It treats rough
   consensus as a sort of "exception processing", to deal with cases
   where the person objecting still feels strongly that their objection
   is valid and must be accommodated.  But it is certainly true that
   more often than not in the IETF, at least someone in the group will
   be unsatisfied with a particular decision.  In that sense, rough
   consensus might be closer to the norm than the "exception".  However,
   when a participant says, "That's not my favorite solution, but I can
   live with it; I'm satisfied that we've made a reasonable choice",
   that participant is not in the "rough" part of a rough consensus; the
   group actually reached consensus if that person is satisfied with the
   outcome.  It's when the chair has to declare that an unsatisfied
   person still has an open issue, but that the group has truly answered
   the objection, that the consensus is only rough.

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   Now, a conclusion of having only rough consensus relies heavily on
   the good judgement of the consensus caller.  The group must truly
   consider and weigh an issue before the objection can be dismissed as
   being "in the rough".  The chair of the working group in one of these
   cases is going to have to decide that not only has the working group
   taken the objection seriously, but that it has fully examined the
   ramifications of not making a change to accommodate it, and that the
   outcome does constitute a failure to meet the technical requirements
   of the work.  In order to do this, the chair will need to have a good
   idea of the purpose and architecture of the work being done and use
   their own technical judgement to make sure that the solution meets
   those requirements.  What can't happen is that the chair bases their
   decision solely on hearing a large number of voices simply saying,
   "The objection isn't valid."  That would simply be to take a vote.  A
   valid justification needs to me made.

   Any finding of rough consensus needs, at some level, to provide a
   satisfactory explanation to the person(s) raising the issue of why
   their concern is not going to be accommodated.  A good outcome is for
   the objector to be satisfied that, although their issue is not being
   accommodated in the final product, they understand and accept the
   outcome.  Remember, if the objector feels that the issue is so
   essential that it must be attended to, they always have the option to
   file an appeal.  A technical error is always a valid basis for an
   appeal, and a chair or AD has the freedom and the responsibility to
   say, "The group did not take this technical issue into proper
   account."  Simply having a large majority of people agreeing to
   dismiss an objection is not enough.

4.  Humming should be the start of a conversation, not the end

   We don't vote in the IETF.  In some ways, we can't vote: Since the
   IETF is not a membership organization, it's nearly impossible to
   figure out who would get a vote for any given question.  We don't
   know who the members of any given working group are at any one time,
   and we certainly don't know who all of the members of the IETF are.
   So voting is not practical.  We've also decided that coming to
   consensus (albeit sometimes rough consensus) is an important thing to
   do.  So instead of voting, we "hum".

   However, more and more we see people who think that a hum is a sort
   of anonymous vote, with some chairs calling every question they have
   for the working group by asking for a hum and judging the result by
   the loudest hum, even saying things like, "There were lots of hums
   for choice 1 and very few hums for choice 2, so it sounds like we
   have rough consensus for choice 1."  This really misses the point of
   humming and is almost certainly mis-assessing the consensus.  Hums
   should not be used as votes.

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   So, why do we hum?  The first reason is pragmatic.  Quite often, a
   chair is faced with a room full of people who seem to be
   diametrically opposed on some choice facing the group.  In order to
   find a starting place for the conversation, it is often useful for
   the chair to ask for a hum to see if one of the choices already has a
   stronger base of support than the other.  If choice "foo" has a
   significant amount more support than choice "bar", it is likely
   easier to start the discussion by saying, "OK, 'foo' seems to have
   quite a bit of support.  Let's have the people that think 'foo' is a
   bad idea come up and tell us why it is problematic."  At that point,
   the group can start going through the issues and see if any of them
   are showstoppers.  It may turn out that one of the objections is
   instantly recognized by the entire group as a fatal flaw in "foo" and
   the group will then turn to a discussion of the merits (and demerits)
   of "bar" instead.  All that the hum does is give the chair a starting
   point: There were likely to be less objections to "foo" than to "bar"
   at the beginning of the discussion, so starting with whatever got the
   most hums can shorten the discussion.

   But couldn't the above could have been done with a show of hands
   instead of a hum?  Sure, but there are more formal reasons for using
   a hum instead of a show of hands: Another reason we hum is because it
   actually gives the chair the opportunity to take the temperature of
   the room.  A smaller bunch of loud hums for choice A and a larger
   number of non-committal hums for choice B might indicate that some
   people believe that there are serious problems with choice B, albeit
   the more popular by sheer number of people.  The chair might decide
   that starting with choice A and getting objections to it is the
   easier path forward and more likely to result in consensus in the
   end.  Remember, coming to consensus is a matter of eliminating
   disagreements, so the chair wants to choose the path that gets to the
   least objections fastest.  A bunch of people who are not strongly
   committed to B might have no real technical objection to A, even
   though it is not their first preference.  Taking the hum is to figure
   out how to start the conversation.  The chair could always be
   surprised because the hum turns out to be unanimous.  Otherwise, the
   hum begins the discussion, it doesn't end it.  Of course, a chair
   could get the temperature of the room by doing a show of hands too,
   and knowing who specifically feels one way or another can help a good
   chair guide the subsequent conversation.  However, a show of hands
   will often leave the impression that the number of people matters in
   some formal way.  It takes a chair and a working group with a solid
   understanding of how consensus works to do a show of hands and not
   end up reinforcing the mistaken notion that a vote is taking place.
   A chair can always take the hum and then later ask for specific folks
   to identify themselves to elicit more discussion.  The hum makes it
   perfectly clear that the chair is simply figuring out the direction
   of the conversation.

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   This also points to another misuse of the hum: If the chair is
   already convinced that the group has come to consensus, there is no
   reason to take a hum.  In fact, taking the hum only serves to
   discourage those who might be in the minority from voicing their
   concerns to the group in the face of a large majority who want to
   move forward.  The right thing for the chair to do if they already
   sense consensus is to say, "It sounds to me like we have consensus
   for choice A.  Does anybody have any concerns or objections to going
   with A?"  This allows folks to bring up issues to the group that the
   chair might have mistakenly missed without having them feel that the
   majority has "already spoken".

   There are times where the result of a hum is a pretty even split.  In
   practical terms, that means it doesn't matter where the chair starts
   the discussion.  And in fact, we've had working groups where a coin-
   flip decided which proposal to start with.  That doesn't mean that
   the coin-flip determined the outcome; if a fatal technical flaw was
   found in the chosen solution, it is still incumbent upon the group to
   address the issue raised.  Rough consensus on the technical points,
   in the end, is always required.  Any way to find a place to start, be
   it the hum or the coin-flip, is only getting to the beginning of the
   discussion, not the end.

   Finally, there are times where chairs take a hum toward the end of a
   discussion, but this must be done with extreme caution.  This is
   discussed in the next section.

5.  One Hundred people for and five people against might not be rough

   Remember that consensus is found when all of the objections have been
   addressed.  Because of this, using rough consensus avoids a major
   pitfall of a straight vote: If there is a minority of folks who have
   a valid technical objection, that objection must be dealt with before
   consensus can be declared.  This also reveals one of the great
   strengths of using consensus over voting: It isn't possible to use
   "vote stuffing" (simply recruiting a large number of people to
   support a particular side, even people who have never participated in
   a working group or the IETF at all) to change the outcome of a
   consensus call.  As long as the chair is looking for outstanding
   technical objections and not counting heads, vote stuffing shouldn't
   affect the outcome of the consensus call.  So in a large working
   group with over 100 active participants and broad agreement to go
   forward with a particular protocol, if a few participants say, "This
   protocol is going to cause congestion on the network, and it has no
   mechanism to back off when congestion occurs; we object to going
   forward without such a mechanism in place", and the objection is met
   with silence on the mailing list, there is no consensus.  Even if the

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   working group chair makes a working group last call on the document,
   and 100 people actively reply and say, "This document is ready to go
   forward", if the open issue hasn't been addressed, there's still no
   consensus.  It's the existence of the unaddressed open issue, not the
   number of people, which is determinative in judging consensus.  As
   discussed earlier, you can have rough consensus with issues that have
   been purposely dismissed, but not ones that have been ignored.

   This brings us back to when a hum could be used (cautiously) at the
   end of a discussion.  A discussion may be ongoing for some time, and
   a particular objection seems to be holding up the decision.  A
   diligent chair who's been carefully listening to the discussion might
   think, "I have heard person X make this objection, and I've heard
   responses from many other folks that really address the issue.  I
   think we have rough consensus.  But the objection keeps coming up.
   Maybe it's just the one person getting up again and again with the
   same argument, but maybe we don't have rough consensus.  I'm not
   sure."  At this point, the chair might ask for a hum.  If only a
   single hum objecting can be heard, even a loud one, in the face of
   everyone else humming that the objection has been answered, the chair
   has pretty good reason to believe that they heard the single
   objection all along and it really has been addressed.  However, to
   say immediately after the hum, "It sounds like we have rough
   consensus" and nothing else is at best being slipshod: What the chair
   really needs to say at that point is, "I believe the only objection
   we've heard is A (coming from person X), and I've heard answers from
   the group that fully address that issue.  So, unless I hear a
   different objection than the one I've just described, I find that
   there is rough consensus to move on."  That leaves the door open for
   someone to tell the chair that the objection was really on different
   grounds and they misevaluated, but makes it clear that the chair has
   found rough consensus due to the discussion, not due to the hum.
   Again, it's not the hum that ends things, it's that the issues have
   been addressed.  If the small minority (even one person) still has an
   issue that hasn't been addressed, rough consensus still hasn't been

6.  Five people for and one hundred people against might still be rough

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   This one is the real mind bender for most people, and certainly the
   most controversial.  Say there is a very small working group, one
   with half a dozen truly active participants who are experts in the
   field; everybody else is just following along, but not contributing
   to the discussion.  The active folks come up with a protocol document
   that they all agree is the right way forward, and people inside and
   outside the working group agree that the protocol is likely to get
   widespread adoption; it is a good solution to a real problem, even if
   the non-experts don't have the ability to fully judge the details.

   However, one of the active members has an objection to a particular
   section: The protocol currently uses a well-known algorithm to
   address an issue, but the objector has a very elegant algorithm to
   address the issue, one which works especially well on their
   particular piece of hardware.  There is some discussion, and all of
   the other contributors say, "Yes, that is elegant, but what we're
   using now is well-understood, widely-implemented, and it works
   perfectly acceptably, even on the objector's hardware.  There is
   always some inherent risk to go with a new, albeit more elegant,
   algorithm.  We should stick to the one we've got."  The chair follows
   the conversation and says, "It sounds like the issue has been
   addressed and there's consensus to stick with the current solution."
   The objector is not satisfied, maybe even saying, "But this is silly.
   You've seen that my algorithm works.  We should go with that."  The
   chair makes the judgement that the consensus is rough, in that there
   is still an objector, but the issue has been addressed and the risk
   argument has won the day.  The chair makes a working group last call.

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   Now the worst case scenario happens.  The objector, still unhappy
   that their preferred solution was not chosen, recruits one hundred
   people, maybe a few who were silent participants in the working group
   already, but mostly people who are at the same company as the
   objector who never participated before.  The objector gets them all
   to post a message to the list saying, "I believe we should go with
   the new elegant algorithm in section 5.6 instead of the current one.
   It is more elegant, and works better on our hardware."  The chair
   sees these dozens of messages coming in and posts a query to each of
   them: "We discussed this on the list, and we seemed to have consensus
   that, given the inherent risk of a new algorithm, and the widespread
   deployment of this current one, it's better to stick with the current
   one.  Do you have further information that indicates something
   different?"  And in reply the chair gets utter silence.  These
   posters to the list (say some of whom were from the company sales and
   marketing department) thought that they were simply voting and have
   no answer to give.  At that point, it is within bounds for the chair
   to say, "We have objections, but the objections have been
   sufficiently answered, and the objectors seem uninterested in
   participating in the discussion.  Albeit rough in the extreme, there
   is rough consensus to go with the current solution."

   There is no doubt that this is the degenerate case and a clear
   indication of something pathological.  But this is precisely what
   rough consensus is designed to guard against: vote stuffing.  In the
   presence of an objection, the chair can use their technical judgement
   to decide that the objection has been answered by the group and that
   rough consensus overrides the objection.  Now, the case described
   here is probably the hardest call for the chair to make (how many of
   us are willing to make the call that the vast majority of people in
   the room are simply stonewalling, not trying to come to consensus?),
   and if appealed it would be incredibly difficult for the appeals body
   to sort it out.  Indeed, it is likely that if a working group got
   this dysfunctional, it would put the whole concept of coming to rough
   consensus at risk.  But still, the correct outcome in this case is to
   look at the very weak signal against the huge background noise in
   order to find the rough consensus.

7.  Security Considerations

   "He who defends with love will be secure."  -- Lao Tzu

8.  Informative References

   [Clark]    Clark, D. D., "A Cloudy Crystal Ball - Visions of the
              Future", July 1992.


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   [IETF24]   Davies, M., Ed., Clark, C., Ed., and D. Legare, Ed.,
              "Proceedings of the Twenty-Fourth Internet Engineering
              Task Force", July 1992,

   [Sheeran]  Sheeran, M. J., "Beyond Majority Rule: Voteless Decisions
              in the Religious Society of Friends", December 1983.

Appendix A.  Acknowledgements

   This document is the result of conversations with many IETF
   participants, too many to name individually.  I greatly appreciate
   all of the discussions and guidance.  I do want to extend special
   thanks to Peter Saint-Andre, who sat me down and pushed me to start
   writing, and to Melinda Shore for pointing me to Beyond Majority Rule
   [Sheeran], which inspired some of the thinking in this document.

Author's Address

   Pete Resnick
   Qualcomm Technologies, Inc.
   5775 Morehouse Drive
   San Diego, CA  92121

   Phone: +1 858 6511 4478

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