Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 23, Issue 2, pp 449–468

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

Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s11948-016-9793-y

Cite this article as:
Cath, C. & Floridi, L. Sci Eng Ethics (2017) 23: 449. doi:10.1007/s11948-016-9793-y


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 

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Oxford Internet InstituteUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK

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