Human Rights Protocol Considerations Research Group N. ten Oever
Internet-Draft ARTICLE 19
Intended status: Informational A. Sullivan
Expires: January 1, 2018 Oracle
June 30, 2017

On the Politics of Standards


This document aims to outline different views on the relation between protocols and politics and seeks to answer the question whether protocols are political.

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction

 "we shape our tools and thereafter they shape us"

                          -John Culkin

The design of the Internet through protocols and standards is a technical issue with great poltical and econmic impacts [RFC0603]. The early Internet community already realized that it needed to make decisions on political issues such as Intellectual Property Rights, Internationzalization [BramanI], diversity, access [RFC0101] privacy and security [RFC0049], and the military [RFC0164] [RFC0316], governmental [RFC0144] [RFC0286] [RFC0313] [RFC0542] [RFC0549] and non-governmental [RFC0196] uses, which has been clearly pointed out by Braman [BramanII].

Recently there has been an increased discussion on the relation between Internet protocols and human rights [hrpc] which spurred the discussion on the political nature of protocols. In this document we aim to outline different views on the relation between protocols and politics and seek to answer the question whether protocols are political.

2. Vocabulary Used

3. Literature and Positions

While discussing the impact of protocols on human rights, different positions could be differentiated. Without judging them on their internal or external consistency they are represented here.

3.1. Politics

[CREF1] I suspect we have a problem that we haven’t defined “politics”, which is maybe what’s causing some of the angst. Should we?

3.2. Technology is value neutral

This position starts from the premise that the technical and poltical 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 technology 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 is 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 goals…is reduced efficiency.” [Feenberg]

3.3. Some protocols are political some times

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 requires that each protocol and use be evaluated for its political dimension, in order to understand the extent to which it is political.

3.4. The network has its own logic and values

While humans create techologies, that 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. [CREF2] It seems like some references are needed here. Not sure whether we want more generic or less – Heidegger’s "Question" seems like a good start, but it’s hardly about protocols. The very existence of the automobile imposes physical forms on the world different from those that come from the electric tram or the horse-cart. Under this view, the technology has its own needs and pressures, independent of those of human actors. As it changes, it will change at least in part according to those needs and pressures.

As a result, Internet protocols express at least to some extent the logic and values of the overall Internet technology.

3.5. Protocols are inherently political

On the other side of the spectrum there are the ones who insist that technology is non-neutral. This is for instance made explicit by Postman where 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, different media have different intellectual and emotional biases; (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. [Postman]

More recent scholars of Internet infrastructure and governance have also pointed out that Internet processes and protocols have become part and parcel of political processes and public policies: one only has to look at the IANA transition, the RFC on pervasive monitoring [CREF3] I have long felt that DeNardis’s claim about RFC 7258 embodies a misunderstanding of the IETF’s stance. P3 of sec 1 is pretty clear that the scope is carefully limited to a technical meaning of "attack". I think this sentence is therefore too glib. The IANA transition, on the other hand, really was a political thing, but it’s politics about protocols rather than protocols as politics. I think the passage following the Abbate quote is on stronger ground. or global innovation policy for concrete examples [DeNardis]. According to [Abbate]: “protocols are politics by other means”. This emphasises the interests that are at play in the process of designing standards. This position holds further 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 that protocols are political because they affect or sometimes effect the socio-technical ordering of reality. The latter observation leads Winner to conclude that the reality of technological progress has too often been a scenario where the innovation has dictated change for society. Those who had the power to introduce a new technology also had the power to create a consumer class to use 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]

4. The need for a positioning

It is indisputable that the Internet plays an increasing and increasingly important role in the lives of citizens. Those who produce interoperability standards for the Internet infrastructure are to some extent automatically implicated in that development. That said, the IETF is not the protocol police. It cannot, and should not, ordain what standards are to be used on the networks. The RFC producing community should not go outside of its mission to advocate for a specific use of protocols. At the same time, it may be useful for those producing Internet standards to take into account the political aspects or implications of that work. Some structure for doing so may be helpful both to authors of standards documents and for the IETF.

The risk of not doing doing this is threefold: (1) the IETF might make decisions which have a political impact that was not intended by the community, (2) other bodies or entities might make the decisions for the IETF because the IETF does not have an explicit stance, (3) other bodies that do take these issues into account might increase in importance on behest of the influence of the IETF.

This does not mean the IETF does not have position on particular political issues. The policies for open and diverse participation [RFC7706], the anti-harassment policy [RFC7776], as well as the Guidelines for Privacy Considerations [RFC6973] are testament of this. But these are all examples of positions about the IETF’s work processes or product. What is absent is a way for IETF participants to evaluate their stance with respect to the wider implications of that IETF work.

5. The way forward

There are instruments that can help the IETF develop an approach to address the politics of protocls, part of this can be found in draft-irtf-hrpc-research as well as the United National Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights [UNGP]. But there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The IETF is a particular organization, with a particular mandate, and even if a policy is in place, its success depends on the implementation of the policy by the community.

6. Security Considerations

As this draft concerns a research document, there are no security considerations.

7. IANA Considerations

This document has no actions for IANA.

8. Acknowledgements

9. Research Group Information

The discussion list for the IRTF Human Rights Protocol Considerations working group is located at the e-mail address Information on the group and information on how to subscribe to the list is at:

Archives of the list can be found at:

10. Informative References

[Abbate] Abbate, J., "Inventing the Internet", MIT Press , 2000.
[BramanI] Braman, S., "Internationalization of the Internet by design: The first decade", Global Media and Communication, Vol 8, Issue 1, pp. 27 - 45 , 2012.
[BramanII] Braman, S., "The Framing Years: Policy Fundamentals in the Internet Design Process, 1969–1979", The Information Society Vol. 27, Issue 5, 2011 , 2010.
[Carey] Carey, J., "Communication As Culture", p. 139 , 1992.
[DeNardis] Denardis, L., "The Internet Design Tension between Surveillance and Security", IEEE Annals of the History of Computing (volume 37-2) , 2015.
[Feenberg] Feenberg, A., "Critical Theory of Technology", p.5-6 , 1991.
[hrpc] ten Oever, N. and C. Cath, "Research into Human Rights Protocol Considerations", 2017.
[Postman] Postman, N., "Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology", Vintage: New York. pp. 3–20. , 1992.
[RFC0049] Meyer, E., "Conversations with S. Crocker (UCLA)", RFC 49, DOI 10.17487/RFC0049, April 1970.
[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.
[RFC0603] Burchfiel, J., "Response to RFC 597: Host status", RFC 603, DOI 10.17487/RFC0603, December 1973.
[RFC6973] Cooper, A., Tschofenig, H., Aboba, B., Peterson, J., Morris, J., Hansen, M. and R. Smith, "Privacy Considerations for Internet Protocols", RFC 6973, DOI 10.17487/RFC6973, July 2013.
[RFC7706] Kumari, W. and P. Hoffman, "Decreasing Access Time to Root Servers by Running One on Loopback", RFC 7706, DOI 10.17487/RFC7706, November 2015.
[RFC7776] Resnick, P. and A. Farrel, "IETF Anti-Harassment Procedures", BCP 25, RFC 7776, DOI 10.17487/RFC7776, March 2016.
[UNGP] Ruggie, J. and United Nations, "United Nations Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights", 2011.
[Winner] Winner, L., "Who will we be in cyberspace?", 1995.

Authors' Addresses

Niels ten Oever ARTICLE 19 EMail:
Andrew Sullivan Oracle EMail: