Reflections on the IRTF Research and Analysis of Standard-Setting Processes Research Group
by Sebastian Benthall
Standard setting is an essential part of the governance of networked digital infrastructure. The formulation of the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), for example, has had ubiquitous impact. Changes in standards can lead to shifts to the distribution of wealth and power. For example, the move from HTTP to HTTPS (HTTP Secure) introduced encryption that prevented many forms of eavesdropping and tampering, which was a boon to privacy and human rights and a loss to Internet service providers, who had profited from observing unencrypted web requests. In other domains, standards setting is the site of geopolitical and economic tussle, as in the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), the standards development organization where the 5th generation mobile network standard (5G) was defined. While standard-setting often presents a seemingly impenetrable soup of acronyms, Susan Leigh Star argued that scholars should seriously study “boring things” like infrastructure, for that is where power lies. Standard setting is a target rich environment for multidisciplinary, impactful research into the political economy of technology.
So I celebrate that at the Internet Engineering Task Force 116 meeting in Yokohama, Japan (March 24-30, 2023), the inaugural meeting of the Research and Analysis of Standard-Setting Processes (Proposed) Research Group, otherwise known as RASPRG. While there are several communities that study standards-setting processes, to my knowledge this is the first organized within a standards development organization (SDO) itself. Because the IETF is a particularly open and introspective SDO, this provides RASPRG with a kind of native reflexivity and reciprocity, and ready allies in establishing channels of data access, instrumentation, and establishment of ground truth. It is an extremely promising research area that has already attracted a diverse set of researchers that includes computer scientists, ethnographers, and many in-between, as well as interested members of the IETF community. We’ve already had a number of interesting discussions about research questions and ethics on the mailing list; the legality and ethics of the research are top-of-mind since RASPRG is accountable to the greater IETF community, and includes within it many with a research background in data ethics.
A major focus of RASPRG is deriving insights from the comprehensive open data records of the IETF itself. Two research groups in particular have joined forces through RASPRG. The “Streamlining Social Decision Making for Improved Internet Standards” (sodestream) project, out of University of London and University of Glasgow, has been a well-funded research initiative of computer scientists with deep connections to Internet governance who have been developing tools to improve internet standards setting. Structured somewhat differently, BigBang is an open source research infrastructure project for studying SDOs and other on-line collaborative settings. Both these groups have built data science tools for studying the IETF and other infrastructure governance organizations, and bring this expertise to RASPRG.
I’m excited about these new developments for several reasons. As a technology policy researcher, I am often part of debates about the regulation of platforms and “AI”. However, arguably the network protocol layer is just as important as these ‘application layer’ technologies, and is an under-studied site for impactful research. It is arguably where the most significant privacy-by-design is happening, as network protocols have direct implications for, for example, the behavior of web browsers and other user agents.
I’ve also found the IETF to be an intellectually vibrant community that is curious about the economic, political, and ethical implications of its own work. We have already had open-minded and multidisciplinary conversations about difficult questions regarding demographic representation and organizational involvement, and have seen cooperation towards worthy answers to difficult ethical questions.
On a personal level, I love seeing the maturation of BigBang into something with an infrastructural role. I launched the BigBang project in graduate school with a hairbrained idea that we could build a data science tool to study the sociotechnical process of building data science tools. It failed to earn me my doctoral dissertation, but it was used in the dissertations of others who have become contributors and core developers. Though quite quirky technically, one core developer has described the project to me as a “boundary object” for bringing together different kinds of epistemic communities and imaginaries. So be it. We seem to descending the gradient towards the most fundamental forms of digital infrastructure governance, and it’s my hope that we become embedded there as a source of reflexive insight. It’s been a slow process, but BigBang is an ongoing success raising an expanding universe of questions.