[perpass] politics and the ietf

Elijah Sparrow <elijah@bitmask.net> Thu, 05 December 2013 07:25 UTC

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Date: Wed, 04 Dec 2013 23:25:44 -0800
From: Elijah Sparrow <elijah@bitmask.net>
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Subject: [perpass] politics and the ietf
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As an outsider to the IETF, and one-time sociologist, I found the 
repeated calls in Vancouver 88 and on this list for decisions to be made 
based solely on technical merit and not political argument to be 
extremely fascinating.

There was once a time when the design of a protocol or standard could be 
done in a manner that benefited nearly everyone who might be touched by 
it. These days are surely past. Nearly every single debate or question 
that has come up on this list is deeply political, if for no other 
reason than whatever decisions are made will create winners and losers, 
people who benefit from the choice and people who are harmed by the choice.

In the sweep of history, information capitalism has come to a moment of 
truth, where the material infrastructure that the IETF and technologists 
the world around have helped to create has now matured into both an 
economic engine and a state intelligence system based on mass 
surveillance. Perhaps the most distinguishing political debate of our 
time is how the power of the state and of business with respect to 
citizens and customers has been radically transformed under this new 
regime of ubiquitous surveillance. Obviously, I feel a particular way 
about this, but I am just stating the obvious: these issues are deeply 
political because the fragile balance of powers in liberal democracy and 
in our capitalist economies have been inexorably rocked by technological 

In this context, the question of "how much encryption" is a technical 
question that is also deeply intertwined with the major political 
debates of our day. One only has to note the major headlines around the 
world about the ietf calls for encryption in http 2.0. How often have 
ietf meetings garnered such global coverage?

Scientists and engineers are often forced into political arenas without 
their desire or foresight. Take, for example, the history of genomics, 
climate change, or nuclear physics. Historically, the scientists and 
engineers have clung desperately to the cloak of objective science, even 
as their work took on increasingly obvious political ramifications. My 
hope for the internet is that we could perhaps bypass such silliness and 
embrace the obvious political nature of our work. Being honest with 
ourselves does not push anyone toward any particular technical or 
political stance, except that perhaps we can be more transparent in our 

In the immortal words of Voltaire, and Spiderman, with great power comes 
great responsibility.


I prefer encrypted email - https://bitmask.net/key/elijah.