ICANN’s Relationship with the IETF

by Steve Crocker on February 19, 2014

I am proud to say that ICANN will, for the first time, host a meeting of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) in London, March 2-7.

Many, perhaps most, in the ICANN community have heard of the IETF, but perhaps only a few have participated in the IETF. I’m pleased to say I’ve spent a lot of my professional career working within the IETF, and I’m a strong supporter of its work and its methods, so let me introduce you to the IETF.

The IETF is where the technical work is done on the Internet protocols. New protocols are created and old protocols are improved. “But weren’t the Internet protocols designed and implemented many years ago?” you might ask. Yes, the basic protocols that make the Internet work were indeed designed many years ago, but there’s quite a lot of work still in progress. In fact, there are typically more than a hundred working groups underway at any given time. Each one is focused on the creation or improvement of protocols in a specific area. When their process is complete, they publish “Requests for Comments” or RFCs. These RFCs are available online, free of charge and contain the technical details sufficient to allow a developer to implement the protocol on his machine and have it interact with other machines around the world.

We often speak with pride about the multistakeholder model at ICANN and how it is built upon accountability and transparency. And while we have every reason to be proud of that foundation, few realize that the IETF also embodies those principles, and did so well before the birth of ICANN some 15 years ago.  In no small way, the IETF is defined by its consensus-based processes. All of its processes are open. Like ICANN, the IETF holds meetings three times a year in various locations around the world and, like ICANN, its meetings are open to everyone. However, the official work of each working group is carried out via email lists, and consensus decisions are made via email.

The IETF is a much lighter weight structure than ICANN. Very few are paid staff. The chair of the IETF, currently Jari Arkko, and the area directors that oversee the progress of the hundred-plus working groups are all volunteers. There is also a senior body, the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), that is forward-looking and provides advice to the IETF on the best practices. Russ Housley, the previous chair of the IETF, is now the chair of the IAB.

There are two hallmark features of the IETF that help define its unique character. First, it’s more of a process than an organization. I sometimes hear people within the ICANN community talk about “sending something over to the IETF”. Unlike ICANN, there really isn’t a staff at the IETF that is able to do work for others. Instead, technical people come to the IETF and do the work there.

The second is that the IETF purposefully has no enforcement authority. It creates voluntary standards by consensus and then publishes them for all to use. It is up to the vendors and users to decide to implement these standards. Of course, there is enormous value in interoperability, so there is considerable market pressure to adhere to the protocol specifications, but there aren’t any lawyers or regulators to complain to if a vendor incorrectly implements a protocol.

Let me now talk about our relationship with the IETF. We really have three relationships with them.

The first is one in which ICANN provides a service to the IETF and the entire Internet community through our IANA function, which serves the IETF by publishing its protocol parameters.  We also administer the large blocks of Internet Protocol (IP) addresses and Autonomous System Numbers (ASNs). These are needed for the routing layer of the Internet. And, of course, we administer the Top-Level Domain name system. In these ways, we provide a service to the IETF and the community of vendors and operators it serves.

ICANN and its community are also consumers of IETF processes. We depend on some of the protocols created in the IETF. An example would be the Extensible Provisioning Protocol (EPP), which is central to the interaction between gTLD registries and ICANN-accredited registrars.

Finally, the IETF, ICANN and our siblings in a loose-knit consortium of Internet organizations we refer to as I* partners all participate in Internet governance discussions and inter-organizational communication and cooperation. The I* partners include the Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), the IETF, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Internet Society, and ICANN.

While there are some similarities between ICANN and the IETF, there is also one big difference, specifically the technical understanding of the IETF community. Almost everyone at an IETF meeting can tell you how many bits are in an IPv4 address or an IPv6 address, and some can virtually do it in their sleep. 

The IETF is the original multistakeholder Internet organization that grew up with the technology of the Internet. Without the IETF, the Internet simply wouldn’t exist. It will be a pleasure and an honor to be among friends at the IETF meeting in London next month, and I am pleased ICANN has been chosen to host this meeting.

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