The IETF between open innovation and network load limiters
On Wednesday, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) held a conference to discuss open standards and the question "Who makes the internet?" in preparation for its annual meeting in Berlin at the end of July. Hans-Joachim Otto, parliamentary state secretary of the German Federal Ministry of Economics, took this occasion in the German capital to reassure the internet standards committee that it has a firm ally in the German government. "We keep having to promote the freedom of the internet on an international level", said the FDP (Liberal) politician. "This is by no means a given."
The German Federal Ministry of Economics advocates an "unpatronising" internet, said Otto. The internet and social networks have become a powerful voice for freedom that mustn't be jeopardised through control and regimentation, he added. However, Otto noted that citizens must also be able to defend themselves against online violations of their personal rights. The Liberal politician spoke out against giving governments more technical control over the global network through established bodies such as the IETF and the ICANN internet management authority. Otto also noted that genuine internet politics require an understanding of "how the underlying technologies work".
Hans-Peter Dittler, chairman of the German division of the Internet Society (ISOC), took the opportunity to remind his audience that the founding vision of the IETF's parent organisation was to "keep the internet free from government and corporate influences". However, Dittler said that discussions in Germany suffer because open standard options – and the associations behind them such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) – are being "blanked out" in favour of classic standardisation bodies such as the German Institute for Standardisation (DIN). Dittler noted, however, that the work by bodies such as the IETF has the advantage that it is "open to anyone", and that discussions and decision-making processes are conducted on mailing lists. In line with the fundamental principle of this approach, the decisive factor is a "rough consensus and running code" rather than, for example, a majority vote, he explained.
Olaf Kolkman from Dutch research group NLnet.labs put emphasis on the principle of network neutrality. The internet's "wonderful architecture" facilitates innovation that doesn't require any permissions, said the former chairman of the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), a body that is governed by the IETF. The only requirement for introducing a custom application on the internet is that it must comply with the internet protocol, he said. According to Kolkman, this approach is based on open standards that are developed collectively and adopted voluntarily by the grass roots. The relevant principles – which include consensus, transparency, balance, shared responsibility, and technical feasibility – are described on the Open Stand web site, he added.
Kolkman highlighted the open nature of the process by saying that simple ways of contributing to the standardisation process are available even to small and medium-sized companies. He said that it takes between three months and two years for a proposed "Request for Comments" (RFC) to make its way through a working group and be confirmed as a "tested" IETF standard by the IETF's Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG). Kolkman added that even if an RFC doesn't make it all the way it is useful because patent offices consider such submissions when looking for prior art.
IETF regional chairman Martin Stiemerling said that open standards are a form of separation of powers in technological development. However, he did acknowledge that large companies, such as Google, Facebook and Apple, send more people into the working groups and can influence outcomes this way. He noted that, ultimately, the IESG as the superior authority does have a say in standardisation. Stiemerling, a senior researcher at NEC Laboratories Europe, which specialises in traffic control, said that a practical problem that the IETF is currently dealing with is that of "heavy duty users" who are responsible for a large segment of internet traffic. The Conex (Congestion Exposure) working group is developing technical tools such as load limiters that will "apply the thumbscrews" after giving such users a warning, he explained.
The debate about internet neutrality that is triggered by such techniques was welcomed by Jan Krancke, a regulatory expert at Deutsche Telekom. Krancke said that the topic of open access should be looked at "along the value chain" of the entire internet ecosystem. He also mentioned the "pay for use" formula as a way of financing the ongoing development of a high-performance network infrastructure. Krancke also criticised the way that the big players with their multiple subsidiary votes ultimately decide on standards, and therefore business models, even in the internet standardisation committees. Resources are the decisive factor because a physical presence is required, he added.
Klaus Birkenbihl from ISOC.DE admitted that "things are not ideal in terms of participation". However, the representative added that companies who want to have a say in the IETF must at least also have the support of a developer community or user groups, and that the hurdles for exerting power are, therefore, higher than in traditional standardisation bodies. Ultimately, many IETF standards are also in competition with each other, said Birkenbihl.
(Stefan Krempl / sno)