Skip to Content

Cybersecurity & Standards, Open Internet

Connecting Internet Engineers with Local Policy Experts at IETF 115

Last November CDT and ARTICLE 19 organized an event, alongside the 115th meeting of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) in London, which featured a panel for UK-based policy advocates to connect with the IETF community on encryption-specific internet standards. The conversation came at a critical time, as the UK considers the Online Safety Bill, a legislative proposal that would break end-to-end encryption.

With speakers from civil society, engineers, and stakeholder representatives, the panel reflected on the role and position of IETF in developing standards that incorporate strong encryption for privacy, confidentiality, and access purposes. In a world where the power of concentrated capital is rising, the conversation underscored the weight IETF brings to bear over the promise of a decentralized internet. 

The panel was intentionally crafted to more meaningfully integrate policy work with technical decision-making, as IETF itself is transforming within the complex sociotechnical landscape. The panel was indicative of the need for more inclusion from civil society in internet standards bodies, so as to tangibly tackle the complexities of global internet governance. 

The discussion clarified the link between policy and technical decision-making; the process of design and development of protocols on the internet; the potential for a decentralized internet, and the roadblocks along the way; as well as IETF’s position in the governance and implementation of internet protocols. 

We discussed encryption’s role in protecting privacy, as well as threats against it, namely how states and governments undermine end-to-end encryption. Issues such as censorship were laid out in relation to corporate actors, and the tactics that governments use in the absence of a clear definition of encryption were noted. Panelists explored the relationship between academia, industry, government, and civil society, especially in its relevance to giving economic direction to the internet, and emphasized the critical role of IETF in helping individuals keep up with network developments and bridge research with policy.

There was broad agreement that decisions made in the IETF have real-world and political impacts.

IETF has potential as a space for the engineering world to meet policymaking ideas. Speakers were asked how they as engineers think about this, especially when the policy landscape itself is so riddled with its own terminologies and agendas. In the past, IETF was more of a forum for making decisions about technical issues, and for participants who have been part of the discussions for the last 20 years, the shift from technical to including policy issues has been noticeable. 

It was noted that, for engineers who are new to IETF, this intertwinement might come across as intimidating to a certain extent as they might lack the formation and training in policy thinking. To address this, it was suggested, people with policy expertise could be bridges for organizations as well as the engineers themselves, to bring them up to speed with the latest policy developments.

At the same time, technical decision-making has direct implications for policy, and further, policies have differential impact across the globe. The complexities and intertwinings make it significant for the forum to include civil society as much as engineers. The work that goes into translating these complexities, as well as the balances in technical decision-making, contribute to cultivation of a critical and constructive thinking that is needed to understand and address difficult issues such as encryption, privacy, and censorship. 

The panel noted it is important not to neatly categorize issues as either technical or policy-related, but rather to gather different perspectives on each issue in the process of decision-making.

In conclusion, the discussions on the role of IETF in directing global issues pertaining to internet governance highlight the need to integrate more voices into technical discussions. The issues at hand are not simply of technical nature, which can be gleaned from the transformations in the IETF itself, where policy decisions take up as much space as technical decisions. The panel’s reflections on how to bridge the gap emphasized the work of translation necessary to achieve a critical and constructive approach to the difficult issues that we are facing today.

The IETF’s three plenary meetings per year, across Asia, Europe, and North America, present an opportunity to openly connect local policy experts, and their issues of interest, with the engineers driving the global internet’s governance.