Integrating The Worlds of Technology Design and Policy

By: Dilawar Grewal PhD

Date: July 6, 2016

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Most people associate the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) with all things technical having to do with the Internet. In fact, the IETF’s mission statement states, “The mission of the IETF is to make the Internet work better by producing high quality, relevant technical documents that influence the way people design, use, and manage the Internet.”[1] It also lists five cardinal principles that it adheres to in pursuit of its mission: open process, technical competence, volunteer core, rough consensus and running code, and protocol ownership. At first glance, the mission statement reads as quite technically oriented. However, the second half of the statement, “…influence the way people design, use, and manage the Internet,” alludes to things other than just technical standards. Use and management are often related to things like policies, the human factor, behaviors, rights, acceptability, implementation criteria and protocols, and even politics. It is in this context that this paper explores the IETF experience for participants in the Internet Society Fellowship to the IETF Programme.

The IETF structure and participation protocols are fairly clear to most participants interested in the technical aspects of engineering of and for the Internet. The pathway of in-person or online voluntary participation, discussions, Working Groups, Request for Comments documents (RFC), and so forth, is clear to those interested in discussing, developing, and addressing specific technical issues. There even exists a Working Group on human rights that bridges the gap between the purely technical and human involvement sides of Internet technologies. However, for the most part, IETF meetings lean mostly toward the development of technology and not as much toward the human interaction component. This is in part because the application layer is usually exempt from IETF discussions, and most human interactions occur at that layer. Even though its mission statement refers to people and use, the integration of policy as an interface between technology and human use is currently at a nascent stage in IETF activities. It is against this background that the Internet Society invites a variety of users and developers of technology to engage with the IETF community as Policy Fellows.

My first experience as a Policy Fellow was at IETF 94 in Yokohama in November 2015. In parallel to the IETF conference, some end-users and policymakers from around the world were invited to attend a Policy Fellows meeting. The intent of the meeting was to introduce the policymakers and implementers to the structure of IETF, basic Internet technologies, management tools for such technologies, and networks of technologists; and to provide exposure to the mechanisms and issues around development of Internet technologies, standards, and protocols. Even though policy and its role in the development (and sometimes control) of the use of Internet and Internet-related technologies is not directly discussed at IETF conferences, exposing the Policy Fellows to the technologists and the technologies helped bridge the gap from the technology developers side to the policymakers side. In other words, the policy people now were slightly more aware of the world of the technologists and engineers. Meeting activities included presentations by technologists and technology developers, as well as attendance at Working Group meetings. But there were no activities designed to expose the technologists to the world of the policymakers and implementers. Thus, the world of the technologists and the policy people remained separated, despite being connected by a single-lane, one-way bridge. A true development environment requires that this bridge be two-way and that there be points of contact between both worlds. The interdependence between technology development and policy development collectively defines the Internet of tomorrow. Generating mechanisms whereby these two worlds become more and more aware of each other is an essential component of true development for the future.

My experience at IETF 95 in Buenos Aires in April 2016 was significantly different in two ways. One, I attended the IETF conference as a technologist in areas of interest to me and not as a policy maker or implementer. Two, I attended some of the sessions organized for the Policy Fellows as an outsider. At IETF 95, the Policy Fellows group mostly consisted of South American regulators and telecommunications’ operators. The format of the meetings was similar to IETF 94, but with one major difference: a joint session of technologists and Policy Fellows was organized in which a panel of technologists, policymakers, and regulators discussed the role of and interaction between technology developers and policy developers. The session was filled to capacity and was very well attended on the webcast, as well. It was obvious that the idea of a marriage between future technology protocols and policies was of interest to many.

Awareness of the need for a coalition between core protocols and policies centers around the following three points:

  • Acknowledging that even though most policies are executed at the application layer, awareness of policy needs at the protocol design phase is both necessary and useful.
  • Efficiency as a design driver for technology is not necessarily the best way to develop technology protocols that require integration with policies for optimal deployment outcomes.
  • Envisioning the future where machines talk to each other and impact human lives, sometimes without humans being aware, lays great responsibility on the shoulders of designers to see the good and bad of possibilities. The designs of today are the ones that will either help or hinder much of humanity from progressing and being equal players in the future.

Communications and information are perhaps the two most significant contributors to the development of an individual’s opportunities. Control over communications and information is also perhaps the most significant way in which peoples’ lives, development, culture, and freedom can be influenced. Technologies and technology protocols together form the basis on which machines store, generate, and communicate information; without proper balance between freedom and control at the base level, it is not possible to enhance either freedom or control at higher levels. Policies are what govern the end-user experience, both as individuals and as peoples. If the base level of technology design curtails freedoms, there is no policy that can provide it at the end-user level.

Most engineers design from the perspective of achieving efficiencies. Efficiencies mean that certain objectives are met via the shortest route possible. Designing by efficiency produces unexpected consequences as the social context evolves and the technologies of tomorrow become the technologies of today. In order to preserve the human freedoms in the evolving social context, the degrees of freedom in the design phase of technologies need to be carefully increased. This is best accomplished by introducing the slightly inefficient world of policies into the very efficient world of technology design engineers.

The IETF and Internet Society environments play a vital role in bringing together both technologists and policy people. Exposure to each others worlds is the linchpin to sustaining awareness of the importance of the marriage between technology protocols and policy. To that end, I envision that IETF and the Internet Society Fellowship to the IETF Programme build on the success of the joint panel discussions of IETF 95 and generate more pathways in future meetings that continue to promote the integration of technology design and policy into the work of its intellectuals, designers, engineers, and implementers.

[1] RFC 3935