Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 23, Issue 2, pp 449–468 | Cite as

The Design of the Internet’s Architecture by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and Human Rights

  • Corinne CathEmail author
  • Luciano Floridi
Original Paper


The debate on whether and how the Internet can protect and foster human rights has become a defining issue of our time. This debate often focuses on Internet governance from a regulatory perspective, underestimating the influence and power of the governance of the Internet’s architecture. The technical decisions made by Internet Standard Developing Organisations (SDOs) that build and maintain the technical infrastructure of the Internet influences how information flows. They rearrange the shape of the technically mediated public sphere, including which rights it protects and which practices it enables. In this article, we contribute to the debate on SDOs’ ethical responsibility to bring their work in line with human rights. We defend three theses. First, SDOs’ work is inherently political. Second, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), one of the most influential SDOs, has a moral obligation to ensure its work is coherent with, and fosters, human rights. Third, the IETF should enable the actualisation of human rights through the protocols and standards it designs by implementing a responsibility-by-design approach to engineering. We conclude by presenting some initial recommendations on how to ensure that work carried out by the IETF may enable human rights.


Human rights Information ethics Internet architecture Internet Engineering Task Force Internet governance Responsibility-by-design Standard Developing Organisations Protocols Right to freedom of expression Privacy Standards Values-by-design 



We discussed multiple versions of this article on many occasions during academic conferences, IETF meetings, and with policy makers in the field of Internet governance. Specifically, the first author discussed some of the ideas included in this article at RIPE 70 in Amsterdam May 2015, IETF 94 in Yokohama November 2015, Computers, Privacy and Data Protection (CPDP) in Brussels January 2016, and IETF 95 in Buenos Aires April 2016. We are deeply indebted for the feedback we received from these various communities and audiences. In particular, we wish to thank the two anonymous reviewers whose comments greatly improved the final version. We also want to thank Niels Ten Oever and the Human Rights Protocol Considerations Research (HRPC) group at the Internet Research Task Force (IRTF) for their insightful comments and for the time they put into discussing the ideas presented in this article. We are grateful to David Sutcliffe for his editorial revisions of the penultimate version.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Oxford Internet InstituteUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK

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