Where Now for the IETF Standards Process?

A reporter interviewed me last month 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 Internet Engineering Task Force (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 the past dozen years?

I think the first time I heard a question like that was in the late 1980s. It seems that, in the parlance of the time, some people “just don’t get it.”

But the Internet’s high profile means that more and more people who don’t get it and are in positions of authority in corporations or governments are trying to make the future more predictable by attempting to control the Internet and the organizations, such as the 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 whose explosive growth started with the introduction of the Web in the mid-1990s.

Almost all of the Internet pioneers — with the major exception of Jon Postel, who died about a year ago — are still with us and contributing.

The IETF is still very active and 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, most new — that is trying to get into the Internet-standards game. A few of the new ones seem to be reacting purely to the uncertainty of what will come out of the standards process. The businesses don’t think they can control this.

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 they are not out to disrupt the economic boom that the Internet has brought.

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

Scott Bradner is a contributing editor to Network World (US).