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


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.

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Fig. 1

Source: Website Bray (2012), author of the 451-status code ID,


  1. 1.

    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.

  2. 2.

    On the philosophical importance of design see (Floridi 2011).

  3. 3.

    For details see:

  4. 4.

    For details see:

  5. 5.

    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:

  6. 6.

    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:

  7. 7.

    For full Netmundial Initiative (NMI) outcome document see:

  8. 8.

    The official IETF working documents that describe Internet specifications, communications protocols, procedures and other IETF related issues.

  9. 9.

    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.

  10. 10.

    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 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.

  11. 11.

  12. 12.,

  13. 13.

  14. 14.

    For future details on how and why the monitoring was considered to be a threat see RFC 7258 “Pervasive Monitoring is an attack

  15. 15.

    See RFC 6973 Privacy Considerations for Internet Protocols

  16. 16.

    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.

  17. 17.

    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.

  18. 18.

    See discussions on 451 at IETF 92 in Dallas.

  19. 19.

    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.

  20. 20.

    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:

  21. 21.

    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.

  22. 22.

    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.

  23. 23.

    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.

  24. 24.

    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:

  25. 25.

    See discussions on the IAOC mailinglist on 26-04-2016 under the title: “What is the default hotel?’

  26. 26.


  27. 27.

    For an elaborate analysis of link between net neutrality and the end-to-end principle see:


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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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Correspondence to Corinne Cath.

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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).

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  • 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