Internet Mark 2 Project

Creating Tomorrow's Internet.

Home > Analysis Study >

Governance bodies

The International Engineering Task Force

Founded in 1986, the Internet Engineering Task Force describes itself as "a loosely self-organized group of people who contribute to the engineering and evolution of Internet technologies specifications". The IETF is unusual in that it is not a corporation and has no board of directors, no members, and no dues.

IETF's own internal analysis (RFC 3774 - IETF Problem Statement) has revealed significant problems, including:

IETF governance contrasts substantially with the other two standards organisations involved with Internet standards. ITU has the strongest governance structure, being responsible eventually to member state representatives, and W3C standards work is determined and prioritized by a member organization.

So in this respect, IETF is peculiar. And this peculiarity brings with it certain problems because, in reality, few issues if any are purely technical and have no policy repercussions. This is shown out in case studies outlined in the Internet Analysis Report - 2004 where IETF of necessity has had to move outside its technical mandate but has not been effective in doing so.

Two of the case studies, covering DNSSEC and IPv6, also indicate extremely long time frames within IETF for protocol development and implementation. No-one can attribute these long time frames to technical complexity alone. Poor methodologies, volunteerism, under-resourcing, unprofessional behaviour and management issues have all contributed to delays, according to the IETF Problem Working Group.

IETF's decisions to address its problems in an open forum are to be applauded, as are its attempts to engage a wide global audience of engineers in its consensus based decision making structures. However, IETF is a classic technocracy. While it appears to be reasonably capable of managing the day to day concerns as regards maintenance of standards, it does not have the capacity to tackle major tasks or major change. To solve these problems, IETF would need to

Other standards bodies - ITU and W3C

To an outsider, The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) appears to have all the efficiency and capacity to get things done that ICANN appears not to have. However, that perception may well be illusory; and anyone who has been involved in development of standards such as X.400 could point to equally problematic issues in ITU.

It should be remembered that, at the time IETF was established in 1986, telecommunications companies were not major players in the emerging Internet. They became more involved from 1990 on, as a commercial Internet got underway. It should also be remembered that in the 1970s the US telecommunications giant, AT&T, could not see a business case for involvement in the Internet. This perhaps is the most telling criticism of the staid and solid elder statesman that ITU is - it may find it difficult to be nimble or innovative in seeing future directions.

ITU, like IETF, is undergoing considerable internally driven reform to try to better cope with the demands of a rapidly changing communications technology landscape. There would appear to be room for some of the strengths of ITU to be better utilised alongside those of IETF and ICANN in the future, particularly as telephony and Internet based applications continue to converge.

W3C is the third "standards body", and effectively addresses issues with the World Wide Web architecture. It separated from IETF in 1994 as it believed IETF to be incapable of dealing with its particular range of issues.

ICANN related bodies

It is important to realize that ICANN doesn't control everything in Internet technical co-ordination. An interesting history associated with the early growth of the Internet led to a number of quite independent structures being established. These include:

ICANN has a series of relationships with these separate bodies which it is attempting to formalise.


The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) exists in its current form largely because the US Government wanted it to be so.

Its structure is an evolving reactive mechanism. Anyone analysing its current structure without regard for the history of how it came to be would have to regard ICANN as

The initial proposal for a body to administer the domain name system suggested establishment under Swiss law. However at the beginning of October 1998 the US Government's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) responded to this proposal by announcing the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names & Numbers (ICANN). It would operate under an agreement with the NTIA with oversight by the US congress. The new body was asked to ensure competition in delivery of domain name services. Thus ICANN became a corporation under US law, with a contract to operate from the US government, despite concerns of many stakeholders.

ICANN claims its mission to be technical co-ordination. (ICANN website). However, because of the eccentricities and incomplete nature of Internet governance structures, ICANN has consistently worked in areas that cannot be regarded as technical co-ordination.

For instance, in 1999 it succeeded in establishing a Uniform Dispute Resolutions Policy (UDRP) for the top level domains; hardly a technical co-ordination task, but certainly a useful one for development of the new media.

Similarly eccentric is the role of ICANN in creating a competitive environment in DNS, part of its contract with US Department of Commerce. This would normally be seen as a regulatory body's responsibilities, not a technical co-ordination task.

Public policy matters where ICANN is active include intellectual property issues and security. Public policy matters where ICANN is not active include spam and consumer protection. Once again, the logic of involvement and non-involvement is not easy to follow.

Perhaps partially as a result of this mission confusion, ICANN does not handle public policy well or effectively. An example of this was its recent attempts to gain widespread public input in to the WHOIS database and privacy issues.

Governance conclusions

The problem with ICANN, and with IETF, is one of defining scope within a schema that effectively manages all needs of the 21st century Internet. No such schema exists, and that is why bodies such as ICANN and IETF are continually operating in areas outside of their level of competence in order to keep things afloat.

If there is a problem in Internet governance, it is the gaps between the competencies of existence governance bodies and the needs of Internet industry, governmental, and community users. As user needs in a broad sense do not come within the range of concern of any particular Internet governance body, it is inevitable that mistakes are being made and crucial issues are not being addressed.





Privacy | © Internet Mark 2 Project 2004.