Two figures in blue light
Credit: Markus Spiske

Corinne Cath was recently awarded the Applied Networking Research Prize from the Internet Research Task Force (IRTF), here she writes about her work on human rights advocacy in the organisation.

Below the visible aspects of social media and other Internet applications lies a vast infrastructure, where little known organisations and technologists exercise power over the Internet.

My PhD dissertation is a first-hand anthropological study of how the culture of one such important organisation, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), influences infrastructural politics thereby shaping the development of technology across the Internet.

Between 2017 and 2020, I attended many of the IETF’s meetings, in person and online. Two weeks ago, during the IETF 115 meeting in London I received the Internet Research Task Force (IRTF) Applied Networking Research Prize (ANRP).

The ANRP is handed out by the IRTF every year to ‘recognizes the best new ideas in networking and bring them to the IETF and IRTF, especially in cases where they would not otherwise see much exposure or discussion.’ To the best of my knowledge, I am the first researcher to win the prize for ethnographic work on the IETF and its governance culture.

‘My research demonstrates how the IETF’s conservative protocol politics and narrow network imaginaries shape the development of the Internet networking through standards.’

But why does the IETF, or its governance culture, matter for contemporary technology policy?

The IETF is a private, industry-led Internet standardisation body. Founded in 1986, the IETF is one of the oldest standard-setting bodies and it evolved directly out of the ARPANET. It was set up to help develop the Internet standards that enable the exchange of information on the Internet by connecting different infrastructural products and services to one another.

IETF’s governance is characterised by its procedurally open governance model, rough working culture, the absence of top-down management and technology development based on voluntary coordination between technical actors. Some of the biggest global Internet hardware and software companies, including Apple, Cisco, Cloudflare, Facebook, Google, and Huawei, participate in the IETF. As such, it is an important venue through which to understand the current and future state of the Internet’s architecture.

My PhD research is anchored around the question of what role IETF culture play in its infrastructural politics?

To answer this question, I conducted an ethnographic case study of human rights advocates working in the IETF. My findings draw on three years of ethnographic fieldwork, document analysis and interviews. My research demonstrates how the IETF’s conservative protocol politics and narrow network imaginaries shape the development of the Internet networking through standards.

Displaying what I call ‘engineered innocence’, IETF technologists primarily intervene in human rights’ matters when their culturally particular political commitments are threatened. The empirical chapters in my dissertation make this case by focussing on three interrelated aspects of the IETF: its organisational culture, its exclusionary working practices and how they affect the reception of human rights values, and how the IETF’s imaginaries shape engineers’ understanding of responsibility for the technology ‘they choose to create’.

It was this latter chapter, that I presented during the ANRP award ceremony. The talk is entitled ‘The Technology We Choose To Create: Human Rights Advocacy in the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)’ and a full copy of my PhD dissertation here.

It was in equal measure nerve-wracking and thrilling to be able to present some of that work to the community about which my research speaks.

Yet, as always, I found the IETF community interested and engaged with my research—even if we do not always find “rough consensus”.

I got a number of questions from the audience and was, as always, pressed to keep on participating in the IETF by way of this research.

I would like to thank the IETF and IRTF for awarding me the opportunity to present my work to the IETF’s community, the Internet Society (ISOC) for its support of the prize winners, the Ford Foundation for supporting my research, and the Minderoo Centre for providing an academic home.


Corinne Cath is an affiliate at the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy.