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.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
It is important to clarify the difference between standards and protocols. Standards enable diverse systems to communicate with each other, making possible interoperability of pieces of different software and hardware made by different vendors. Protocols are ‘a set of recommendations and rules that outline specific technical standards’ (Galloway 2004:7). In this article we use the overarching term “Internet’s architecture” in order to refer to both standards and protocols and avoid unnecessary digression. For a good introduction to Internet’s architecture, defined as a shortcut for internet standards and protocols, in their turn defined on the basis of the internet protocol suite see Hall, Eric A. 2000. Internet Core Protocols: The Definitive Guide—Foreword by Vincent Cerf. Beijing; Farnham: O'Reilly.
On the philosophical importance of design see (Floridi 2011).
For details see: http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/68/167.
A two-phase UN summit on the information society, held in 2003 in Geneva and in Tunis in 2005, with the aim of ‘developing and fostering a clear statement of political will and taking concrete steps to establish the foundations for an Information Society for all, reflecting all the different interests at stake. (…) Putting Geneva's Plan of Action into motion as well as finding solutions and reaching agreements in the fields of Internet governance, financing mechanisms, and follow-up and implementation of the Geneva and Tunis documents.’ For more information see: https://www.itu.int/net/wsis/basic/about.html.
The Netmundial Initiative (NMI) aims to ‘provide a platform that helps catalyse practical cooperation between all stakeholders in order to address Internet issues and advance the implementation of the NETmundial Principles and Roadmap.’ This roadmap was created during a one time meeting, held April 2014 in Brazil. It brought together over 1400 stakeholders from almost 100 countries and all different sectors to tackle various Internet governance challenges. For more information see: https://www.netmundial.org/.
For full Netmundial Initiative (NMI) outcome document see: http://netmundial.br/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/NETmundial-Multistakeholder-Document.pdf.
The official IETF working documents that describe Internet specifications, communications protocols, procedures and other IETF related issues.
We follow Richards (2009), according to which data triangulation mitigates some of the issues surrounding ‘double hermeneutics’, as well as purposive sampling, inherent to this research.
The figures come from the IETF website. There are many flaws in the data visualizations. As the website states: The technical term that experts like to use for the level of quality achieved by this tool is "crap".’ See http://www.arkko.com/tools/authorstats.html#quality The point, however, is that one does not need perfect data visualizations, as even these approximate figures support the conclusion that the IETF participant base is relatively homogenous.
For future details on how and why the monitoring was considered to be a threat see RFC 7258 “Pervasive Monitoring is an attack https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc7258.
See RFC 6973 Privacy Considerations for Internet Protocols https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc6973.
The Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP) status code ‘451 Unavailable for Legal Reasons’ is the protocol that guides how messages are transmitted and formatted and how servers and browsers should deal with various commands—error status code. It is displayed when a resource (web servers or pages) can’t be accessed because of legal reasons, often because a government blocks them. This status code would create more transparency about how legal and political issues affect the ability of end-users to connect.
The choice is slightly ironic because Bradbury chose that title in order to refer to the alleged temperature at which paper self-combusts. The Gutenberg age still deeply influences the Turing age.
See http://tools.ietf.org/wg/httpbis/minutes?item=minutes-92-httpbis.html discussions on 451 at IETF 92 in Dallas.
We understand that the usefulness of status code 451 is limited, as it will most likely be used in cases of cooperative, legal content removal like for instance copyright infringements. It does not provide a method to detect censorship across the board, as it requires those entities doing the filtering to voluntarily inject the status code. This being said, we believe it remains an important development as it creates more transparency about online censorship.
These parameters come in the form of privacy and security considerations, that when considered ‘too grave’, means that an RFC will be not be approved by the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG), until the issues are sufficiently addressed. ‘The Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG) is responsible for technical management of IETF activities and the Internet standards process. (…) The IESG is directly responsible for the actions associated with entry into and movement along the Internet "standards track," including final approval of specifications as Internet Standards.’ For more information please see: https://www.ietf.org/iesg/.
The Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS) is a secure version of the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP). HTTP is the protocol that sends data between a browser and a requested website. Secure in this case means that the communication between the browser and the website is encrypted.
ICANN is a crucial Internet governance organization. This technical non-profit multistakeholder organization, is responsible for managing a crucial part of the Internet’s core infrastructure and ensures the network’s stability and secure operation. ICANN is responsible for managing IP addresses, domain names, and root servers.
ITU is the United Nations organisation responsible for developing telecommunications standards; it is also involved in developing new standards for broadband Internet, latest-generation wireless technologies, Internet data and access.
See here for the most recent Internet Draft (I-D) by the Human Rights Protocol Considerations (HRPC) research group, which includes the first iteration of the human rights protocol considerations: https://datatracker.ietf.org/doc/draft-tenoever-hrpc-research/.
See discussions on the IAOC mailinglist on 26-04-2016 under the title: “What is the default hotel?’ https://mailarchive.ietf.org/arch/search/?email_list=mtgvenue.
For an elaborate analysis of link between net neutrality and the end-to-end principle see: https://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/cs181/projects/2010-11/NetNeutrality/Articles/Proponents.html.
Abbate, J. (2000). Inventing the internet. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Abrams, P. (1998). Notes on the difficulty of studying the state. Journal of Historical Sociology, 1(1), 58–89.
Babbie, E. (2010). The basics of social research. Belmont, CA: Cengage.
Baran, P. (1964). On distributed communications: Twelve volumes. Washington, D.C.: RAND Report Series.
Benkler, Y. (2006). The wealth of networks: How social production transforms markets and freedom. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Berkman Center Report. (2016). Don’t panic: Making progress on the “going dark” debate. Retrieved February 2, 2016, https://cyber.law.harvard.edu/pubrelease/dont-panic/Dont_Panic_Making_Progress_on_Going_Dark_Debate.pdf.
Blee, K., & Taylor, V. (2002). Semi-structured interviewing in social movement research. In B. Klandermans & S. Staggenborg (Eds.), Methods of social movement research (pp. 92–117). Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
Bless, R., & Orwat, K. (2016). Values and networks—Steps toward exploring their relationships. ACM: Sigcomm. Retrieved April 29, 2016, from http://www.sigcomm.org/ccr/papers/2016/April/0000000.0000003.
Bray, T. (2012). ID 2616 a new HTTP status code for legally-restricted resources draft-tbray-http-legally-restricted-status-00. Retrieved May 1, 2015, from https://tools.ietf.org/html/draft-tbray-http-legally-restricted-status-00
Broeders, D. (2015). The public core of the internet. Amsterdam: University Amsterdam Press.
Brown, I., Clark, D., & Trossen, D. (2010). Should specific values be embedded in the Internet architecture? Retrieved February 13, 2015, from http://conferences.sigcomm.org/co-next/2010/Workshops/REARCH/ReArch_papers/10-Brown.pdf.
Brysk, A. (2002). Human rights and globalization. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Busch, L. (2011). Standards: Recipes for realities. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Cavoukian, A. (2009). Privacy by design. Ottawa: IPC Publications.
Clark, D. (1988). The design philosophy of the DARPA Internet protocols. Retrieved February 12, 2015, from http://ccr.sigcomm.org/archive/1995/jan95/ccr-9501-clark.pdf.
Clark, D., Wroclawski, J., Sollins, K., & Braden, R. (2005). Tussle in cyberspace: Defining tomorrow’s internet. IEEE/ACM Transactions on Networking, 13(3), 462–475.
Creswell, J. W. (2013). Five qualitative approaches to inquiry. In J. W. Creswell (Ed.), Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches (Vol. 3, pp. 53–84). Thousand Oaks CA: Sage.
Davidson, A., & Morris, J. (2003). Policy impact assessments: Considering the public interest in Internet standards development. Retrieved February 27, 2015, from https://www.cdt.org/files/publications/pia.pdf.
Demmers, J. (2012). Theories of violent conflict: An introduction. NYC: Routledge.
Denardis, L. (2013). Protocol politics: The globalization of Internet governance. Boston: MIT Press.
Denardis, L. (2014). The global war for Internet governance. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Denardis, L. (2015). The Internet design tension between surveillance and security. Retrieved 3 March, 2015 from http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/articleDetails.jsp?reload=true&arnumber=7116471.
Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (2000). Handbook of qualitative research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Doty, N. (2015). Reviewing for privacy in Internet and Web standard-setting. Retrieved March 29, 2016, from https://npdoty.name/slides/nickdoty_reviewing-for-privacy.pdf.
Dutton, W. (2011). Freedom of connection, freedom of expression: The changing legal and regulatory ecology shaping the internet. UNESCO. Retrieved December 22, 2014, from http://portal.unesco.org/ci/en/ev.php-URL_ID=31397&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html.
Floridi, L. (2011). A defence of constructionism: Philosophy as conceptual engineering. Metaphilosophy, 42(3), 282–304.
Franklin, U. M. (1999). The real world of technology. Toronto: Toronto University Press.
Galloway, A. (2004). Protocol. Boston: MIT Press.
Harvey, W. (2011). Strategies for conducting elite interviews. Retrieved June 29, 2015, from http://www.researchgate.net/profile/William_Harvey6/publication/228312871_Strategies_for_Conducting_Elite_Interviews/links/543fc38f0cf2fd72f99da47b.pdf.
Hill, J. F. (2013). A balkanized Internet? The uncertain future of global Internet standards. Retrieved November 2, 2014, from http://journal.georgetown.edu/a-balkanized-internet-the-uncertain-future-of-global-internet-standards-by-jonah-force-hill/.
Internet Engineering Task Force. (1996). RFC 1958 architectural principles of the Internet. Retrieved March 25, 2015, from https://www.ietf.org/rfc/rfc1958.txt.
Internet Engineering Task Force. (1997). RFC 2119 key words for use in RFCs to indicate requirement levels. Retrieved March 4, 2015 from https://www.ietf.org/rfc/rfc2119.txt.
Internet Engineering Task Force. (1998). RFC 2418 security considerations. Retrieved April 2, 2015, from https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc2418#page-23.
Internet Engineering Task Force. (2002). RFC 3426 general architectural and policy considerations. Retrieved February 17, 2015 from http://www.rfc-base.org/rfc-3426.html.
Internet Engineering Task Force. (2003). RFC 3552 guidelines for writing RFC text on security considerations. Retrieved March 13, 2015, from https://www.ietf.org/rfc/rfc3552.txt.
Internet Engineering Task Force. (2004). RFC 3935 a mission statement for the IETF. Retrieved May 1, 2015, from https://www.ietf.org/rfc/rfc3935.txt.
Internet Engineering Task Force. (2013). RFC 6973 privacy considerations. Retrieved July 5, 2015, from https://www.rfc-editor.org/rfc/rfc6973.txt.
Internet Engineering Task Force. (2014). RFC 7258 pervasive monitoring is an attack. Retrieved March 13, 2015, from https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc7258.
Jabri, V. (1996). Discourses on violence: Conflict analysis reconsidered. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.
Kurose, J., & Ross, K. W. (2007). Computer networking: A top-down approach (4th ed.). Boston: Addison-Wesley.
Lessig, L. (2006). Code: And other laws of cyberspace, version 2.0. New York: Basic Books.
Liddicoat, J., & Doria, A. (2012). Human rights and Internet protocols: Comparing processes and principles. Retrieved July 13, 2015, from https://www.unesco-ci.org/cmscore/sites/default/files/2013wsis10/human_rights_and_internet_protocols-_comparing_processes_and_principles28129.pdf.
Mueller, M. (2004). Ruling the root: Internet governance and the taming of cyberspace. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Mueller, M. (2010). Networks and states. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Post, D. (2015). Internet infrastructure and IP censorship. Retrieved August 1, 2015, from http://www.ipjustice.org/digital-rights/internet-infrastructure-and-ip-censorship-by-david-post/.
Rabkin, A., Doty, N. & Mulligan, D. K. (2010). Facilitate, don’t man-date. Retrieved January 1, 2016 from http://www.iab.org/wp-content/IAB-uploads/2011/03/nickdoty.pdf.
Rachovitsa, A. (2015). Engineering “privacy by design” in the Internet protocols: Understanding online privacy both as a technical and a human rights issue in the face of pervasive monitoring. Retrieved May 5, 2015, from http://www.ietf.org/mail-archive/web/hrpc/current/pdfRBnRYFeVsm.pdf.
Richards, L. (2009). Handling qualitative data: A practical guide. London: Sage.
Richie, J., & Lewis, J. (2003). Qualitative research practice: A guide for social science students and researchers. London: Sage.
Sweet, J., & Schneier, M. (2013). Legal aspects of architecture, engineering and the construction process. Cengage: Stamford.
Sweet, J., Schneier, M., & Wentz, B. (2015). Construction managers and contractors. Cengage: Stamford.
Thompson, M. (2013). Evaluating neutrality in the information age: On the value of persons and access. University of Oxford, Oxford. Retrieved March 16, 2015 from http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/people/?id=86.
UNESCO. (2015). Connecting the dots: Access to information and knowledge, freedom of expression, privacy and ethics on a global Internet. Retrieved July 1, 2015, from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0023/002325/232563E.pdf
UN Human Rights Council (OHCHR). (2011). Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue. Retrieved February 27, 2015 from http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/17session/A.HRC.17.27_en.pdf.
UN Human Rights Council (OHCHR). (2015). Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye. Retrieved July 3, 2015, from http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/FreedomOpinion/Pages/CallForSubmission.aspx.
Winner, L. (1977). Autonomous technology: Technics-out-of-control as a theme in political thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Zittrain, J. (2008). The future of the Internet—And how to stop it. New Haven: Yale University Press.
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.
About this article
Cite this article
Cath, C., Floridi, L. The Design of the Internet’s Architecture by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and Human Rights. Sci Eng Ethics 23, 449–468 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-016-9793-y
- Human rights
- Information ethics
- Internet architecture
- Internet Engineering Task Force
- Internet governance
- Standard Developing Organisations
- Right to freedom of expression