Human Rights at the IETF

By: Joana Varon, Niels ten Oever

Date: March 6, 2015

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A lively debate about standards, protocols, and human rights occurred during the meeting of the Security Area Advisory Group (SAAG) at IETF 91 in Hawaii. The discussion was framed by the Internet Draft (I-D), Proposal for Research on Human Rights Protocol Considerations.[1]

The draft departs from previous work done by the IETF on privacy and Internet protocols, such as RFC 6973 on Privacy Consideration Guidelines[2], and suggests that some standards and protocols can solidify, enable, or even threaten human rights, such as freedom of expression and the right to association online. Specifically, the draft aims to establish a research group under the Internet Research Task Force to study the structural relationship and impact between Internet standards and protocols and freedom of expression and association. 

A deeper rationale for the proposal was explained during the SAAG presentation, where the presenters, who are also the authors of this article, emphasized that the Internet was designed with freedom and openness of communications as core values, and questioned if these structural values can or need to be preserved on a technical level. It was argued that as the politicization of the Internet management space increases, the IETF should take an active role in promoting a more structured and holistic approach, thereby future-proofing standards and protocols and avoiding ad hoc decisions following incidents or disclosures elsewhere.

The proposal raised both eyebrows and concerns about the politicization of the work of the community. Dan Harkins posited, “Doing the human rights study will likely politicize protocols. [I don’t] want the technology to have political context. Rather, I want it to be as nonpolitical as possible.” Another respondent stated, “We have to stop pretending that technology is a nonpolitical decision.” A round of applause followed. The presenters then clarified that their research proposal was aimed at (1) avoiding further politicization of both protocols and the community, and (2) offering the community the time and proper processes to define its position on the interrelationship between protocols and human rights, such as freedom of expression.

Both John Levine and Alissa Cooper remarked that, in order to keep the research manageable and to keep the different rights balanced, it is crucial to start the conversation by focusing on specific human rights. The presenters reaffirmed that the primary focus will be on the right to freedom of expression and right to association. Alissa Cooper pointed to the Internet Architecture Board I-D on filtering considerations[3] and the I-D, Policy Considerations for Internet Protocols,[4] as relevant sources for future research. 

Several RFCs already make explicit statements about the objectives of the Internet, including RFC 1958 that reads, “the community believes that the goal [of the Internet] is connectivity, the tool is the Internet Protocol,” and, “the current exponential growth of the network seems to show that connectivity is its own reward and is more valuable than any individual application, such as mail or the World Wide Web.” This RFC notes the intrinsic value of connectivity that is facilitated by the Internet, both in principle and in practice. It also indicates that the underlying principles of the Internet aim to preserve connectivity, which is similar to a section of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that defines a right to receive and to impart information.

There are also protocols that enable freedom of expression and access to information in an unprecedented way, such as Hypertext Transfer Protocol. Although RFC 7230 does not explicitly reference rights, it does form the basis for a rights-enabling architecture. The challenge of the research then is to define the specific protocol attribute(s) made by this protocol that specifically affect human rights.

Next Steps

The next major challenge lies in developing appropriate methodologies to research implicit safeguards in current standards and protocols in order to make them explicit. Open discussions offered insights to possible methodological approaches. Richard Barnes said, “[It] seems that you are reading RFCs and that you are looking for statements on human rights that are laid out in RFCs. You might risk irritating people by reading technical documents as [if they are] political statements. It might be more useful to use RFCs as a window into the community that developed the rights that these RFCs presume.”

Mark Nottingham proposed a perspective of stakeholder prioritization as described in the I-D, Representing Stakeholder Rights in Internet Protocols,[5] which is already implemented at the World Wide Web Consortium.

Useful remarks were made during the session, after the session, and on the mailing list[6], that are being used to improve the next version of the draft slated for further discussion at IETF 92 in Dallas, Texas.

This session raised considerable interest in the community. The presenters and authors of the Proposal for Research on Human Rights Protocol Considerations are continuing their research and will produce an updated I-D before IETF 92. In addition, plans for the Dallas meeting include adding another research methodology and conducting interviews aimed at deepening the understanding that area directors and RFC authors have of specific protocols and the role rights play in them. 

If you have questions for the presenters or an interest in their research, please join the mailing list at


  1. Proposal for Research on Human Rights Protocol Considerations,
  2. “Privacy Considerations for Internet Protocols” [RFC 6973],
  3. Technical Considerations for Internet Service Blocking and Filtering,
  4. Policy Considerations for Internet Protocols,
  5. Representing Stakeholder Rights in Internet Protocols,