[AfrICANN-discuss] How the Internet Got Its Rules --- RFCs' 40th anniversary

Anne-Rachel Inné annerachel at gmail.com
Tue Apr 7 21:10:15 SAST 2009


How the Internet Got Its Rules

Published: April 6, 2009

TODAY is an important date in the history of the Internet: the 40th
anniversary of what is known as the Request for Comments. Outside the
technical community, not many people know about the R.F.C.’s, but
these humble documents shape the Internet’s inner workings and have
played a significant role in its success.

When the R.F.C.’s were born, there wasn’t a World Wide Web. Even by
the end of 1969, there was just a rudimentary network linking four
computers at four research centers: the University of California, Los
Angeles; the Stanford Research Institute; the University of
California, Santa Barbara; and the University of Utah in Salt Lake
City. The government financed the network and the hundred or fewer
computer scientists who used it. It was such a small community that we
all got to know one another.

A great deal of deliberation and planning had gone into the network’s
underlying technology, but no one had given a lot of thought to what
we would actually do with it. So, in August 1968, a handful of
graduate students and staff members from the four sites began meeting
intermittently, in person, to try to figure it out. (I was lucky
enough to be one of the U.C.L.A. students included in these
wide-ranging discussions.) It wasn’t until the next spring that we
realized we should start writing down our thoughts. We thought maybe
we’d put together a few temporary, informal memos on network
protocols, the rules by which computers exchange information. I
offered to organize our early notes.

What was supposed to be a simple chore turned out to be a
nerve-racking project. Our intent was only to encourage others to
chime in, but I worried we might sound as though we were making
official decisions or asserting authority. In my mind, I was inciting
the wrath of some prestigious professor at some phantom East Coast
establishment. I was actually losing sleep over the whole thing, and
when I finally tackled my first memo, which dealt with basic
communication between two computers, it was in the wee hours of the
morning. I had to work in a bathroom so as not to disturb the friends
I was staying with, who were all asleep.

Still fearful of sounding presumptuous, I labeled the note a “Request
for Comments.” R.F.C. 1, written 40 years ago today, left many
questions unanswered, and soon became obsolete. But the R.F.C.’s
themselves took root and flourished. They became the formal method of
publishing Internet protocol standards, and today there are more than
5,000, all readily available online.

But we started writing these notes before we had e-mail, or even
before the network was really working, so we wrote our visions for the
future on paper and sent them around via the postal service. We’d mail
each research group one printout and they’d have to photocopy more

The early R.F.C.’s ranged from grand visions to mundane details,
although the latter quickly became the most common. Less important
than the content of those first documents was that they were available
free of charge and anyone could write one. Instead of authority-based
decision-making, we relied on a process we called “rough consensus and
running code.” Everyone was welcome to propose ideas, and if enough
people liked it and used it, the design became a standard.

After all, everyone understood there was a practical value in choosing
to do the same task in the same way. For example, if we wanted to move
a file from one machine to another, and if you were to design the
process one way, and I was to design it another, then anyone who
wanted to talk to both of us would have to employ two distinct ways of
doing the same thing. So there was plenty of natural pressure to avoid
such hassles. It probably helped that in those days we avoided patents
and other restrictions; without any financial incentive to control the
protocols, it was much easier to reach agreement.

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. When CERN physicists wanted to publish a lot of
information in a way that people could easily get to it and add to it,
they simply built and tested their ideas. Because of the groundwork
we’d laid in the R.F.C.’s, they did not have to ask permission, or
make any changes to the core operations of the Internet. Others soon
copied them — hundreds of thousands of computer users, then hundreds
of millions, creating and sharing content and technology. That’s the

Put another way, we always tried to design each new protocol to be
both useful in its own right and a building block available to others.
We did not think of protocols as finished products, and we
deliberately exposed the internal architecture to make it easy for
others to gain a foothold. This was the antithesis of the attitude of
the old telephone networks, which actively discouraged any additions
or uses they had not sanctioned.

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 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.

As we rebuild our economy, I do hope we keep in mind the value of
openness, especially in industries that have rarely had it. Whether
it’s in health care reform or energy innovation, the largest payoffs
will come not from what the stimulus package pays for directly, but
from the huge vistas we open up for others to explore.

I was reminded of the power and vitality of the R.F.C.’s when I made
my first trip to Bangalore, India, 15 years ago. I was invited to give
a talk at the Indian Institute of Science, and as part of the visit I
was introduced to a student who had built a fairly complex software
system. Impressed, I asked where he had learned to do so much. He
simply said, “I downloaded the R.F.C.’s and read them.”

Stephen D. Crocker is the chief executive of a company that develops
information-sharing technology.

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