Engagement with the IETF

Dan Sexton, Chief Technology Officer, summarises his experience at the Internet Engineering Task Force


The internet is influenced by many factors, not the least of which is the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a voluntary organisation that sets standards for the internet.  

Our work at the IWF to find, assess and remove child sexual abuse content online is directly affected by protocol decisions made at the IETF.  

The IETF holds international meetings three times a year, where research and working groups help produce and refine documents that cover standards development in different technical areas.  

If agreed by ‘rough consensus’, these IETF Internet Drafts (I-Ds) go on to become standards that are often (but not always) adopted by industry. 

Technical progress can have unintended negative consequences, however, including its effects on the safety of children online. This is why I have been participating in IETF meetings in the past year to better understand how the standard settings body works and how civil society groups like the IWF could positively engage in the process. 


The lie of the land 

I found the IETF highly technical in nature, which could be difficult to engage with and understand without some level of technical expertise. While not overly political, participants have a clear focus on online privacy and appear to be largely welcoming to civil society engagement from groups which share those values.  

Conversations can, at times, be very robust and I believe many people may be deterred from contributing or even participating as a result. There is also a limited diversity among participants, in terms of gender, ethnicity or background, with many attendees being white and male, from tech sector companies in Western Europe or North America. 




A presentation I gave on technology measures to prevent child sexual abuse material from being circulated without impinging on privacy and breaking encryption, was useful as it created healthy debate on perceived pros and cons. Even if the IETF community may not agree with privacy-preserving web filtering, the IETF should have a role in documenting best practice if it is implemented, creating standards which do not impinge on user privacy. 


Strength in diversity   

While many members of the IETF are willing to help guide new participants, there are some significant if unintentional barriers to entry. Better decisions are made by diverse groups and those that wish to involve themselves in the development of future internet standards should add their expertise to the IETF. We, and particularly the children that the IWF seeks to protect, will all benefit from strong and effective standards bodies online. 

This is a version of a longer blog that appeared on RIPE Labs.