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April 07, 2009

Rough consensus and running code

A link to How the Internet Got Its Rules is doing the rounds on Twitter at the moment and I should perhaps just retweet it and move on but it seems more significant than that.  Yesterday, the RFC (Request for Comments) documents that have underpinned standards-making on the Internet for as long as I can remember were 40 years old.

I'm sorry to say that I didn't hold a personal celebration, despite the fact that RFCs have had a significant impact in one way or another on most of my professional life.

This was the ultimate in openness in technical design and that culture of open processes was essential in enabling the Internet to grow and evolve as spectacularly as it has. In fact, we probably wouldn’t have the Web without it.


Of course, the process for both publishing ideas and for choosing standards eventually became more formal. Our loose, unnamed meetings grew larger and semi-organized into what we called the Network Working Group. In the four decades since, that group evolved and transformed a couple of times and is now the Internet Engineering Task Force. It has some hierarchy and formality but not much, and it remains free and accessible to anyone.

The R.F.C.’s [sic] have grown up, too. They really aren’t requests for comments anymore because they are published only after a lot of vetting. But the culture that was built up in the beginning has continued to play a strong role in keeping things more open than they might have been. Ideas are accepted and sorted on their merits, with as many ideas rejected by peers as are accepted.

There is no doubt that RFCs, and the open approach to "consensus and running code" that thrived on them, have left a significant legacy but somehow the world feels different now.  As the number of RFCs has grown it has become less clear what status any individual RFC has, even within the community that might have notionally led to it being written, and the processes and workflows associated with their development and maintenance seem unclear (from the point of view of the reader at least).  Ultimately, RFCs have to exist in the world of ISO and NISO and IEEE and W3C and OASIS and probably a lot more besides, each of which has some role to play in the wider landscape of standards-making activity and each of which has a different profile and makeup,

A case in point is the topic of my last post, the W3C Social Web Incubator Group, which has so far spent significantly more time talking about openness (who is allowed to take part in the group) and process (how should the group's activities be structured) than it has about the actual topic at hand.  This is not surprising.  The W3C needs, quite rightly, to balance openness against membership - ultimately, it has to be viable as an organisation as well as remaining both credible and relevant.

And to make matters worse, there are those things that seem to spring up out of nowhere, RSS and OpenID for example, not to mention the de facto world of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Linden Lab and so on.

All in all, we live in confusing times in terms how we best encourage consensus to emerge and the role of the RFC in that space no longer seems as clear as it might once have done.  Nonetheless, the world would be a significantly worse place without them and on that basis, here's wishing the RFC a belated happy birthday.


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I'm not sure RFC's have to exist in the world of NISO etc -- at least not unless NISO etc change their practice to be more light weight. The light weightness of RFC's is good.

But I am continually frustrated by an inability for me as a reader too to tell the actual status of an RFC. They're all called 'request for comments', but that's not what they are at all--some of them are STANDARDS. And some of them aren't. And some of them are somewhere in between? I don't even know what the possibilities are. But I expect which ones are actually considered standards isn't just based on which ones 'catch' informally, the IETF knows which are which.

They just don't label them in a particularly user-friendly way so you can actually TELL. I wish they did. They don't need to join ISO to do that.

I agree... and you've put it better than I did. I didn't mean to imply that "RFCs have to exist in the world of NISO ..." and *therefore they have to become more like formal standards*. I meant that we (as implementers) have to exist in a world where there are formal standards, RFCs and de facto standards all mashed-up in the same space and where, as you say, some RFCs seem more like formal standards and some seem more like lightweight or de facto standards.

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