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ISOC's Public Policy Pillar

by David Maher
dwmaher@attglobal.net

It was inevitable that the Internet Society would establish Public Policy as one of its four pillars, along with Standards, Education and Training, and Membership. The society has long held a preeminent position in the technological arena as the organizational home of the four bodies-the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG), and the Internet Research Task Force (IRTF)-that are the standards-setting and research arms of the Internet community.

There was a time when the standards and protocols of the Internet were of interest primarily to the small group of computer engineers and researchers who set out to establish a network of networks. The impact of those standards and protocols on public policy issues was generally ignored or treated as extraneous to the real work of the engineering community. Prof. Jonathan Postel famously said of domain names: "The registration of a domain name does not have any tradmark status. It is up to the requestor to be sure he is not violating anyone else's trademark." The Internet as enabler of mass assault on traditional notions of privacy and security was not contemplated when the Net connected a few universities and research institutes.

Times have changed. The advent of the World Wide Web has brought the public policy implications of Internet technology to the world's attention. Words like cookies and spam have taken on entirely new meanings, with ardent supporters of opposing positions constantly debating the relative merits of governmental or nongovernmental action. Trade-mark and copyright disputes are keeping a new generation of lawyers gainfully employed. Security of communications has become a central concern of everyone who uses a credit card. The cost of containing viruses and worms is estimated to be in the billions of dollars.

The public policy impact of the work of the IETF and its related bodies no longer passes under the radar of the world's governments and nongovernmental organizations. Many governments, for example, have assumed a role in the promulgation of standards for internationalized domain names-sometimes in conflict with the efforts of an IETF working group-to create a universal standard that will avoid collisions in the name space. At a recent IETF meeting in Adelaide, Australia, the IETF rejected a proposal to develop protocols that would facilitate law enforcement wiretapping capability.

In the nongovernmental area, the Center for Democracy and Technology has announced that its Agenda 2001 includes "expanding our role on broader Internet governance issues, with a focus on (i) expanding public representation in technical standard-setting bodies, like...the Internet Engineering Task Force..." and "building better communication between public interest advocates and technologists working on Internet policy issues, through the creation of a 'Roundtable on Architecture and Internet Policy.'" The purely technical aspects of the creation of new top-level domain names have long since been swamped by the concerns of governmental and nongovernmental trademark interests.

Fortunately for the Internet Society and for the IETF and related organizations, there is a perspective that the independence of those standards and protocol bodies should be preserved. The "Survey-Software" of the Economist of April 14, 2001 (p. 26), stated "...it is the Internet's institutions-such as the IETF-that offer a possible solution to the regulatory issues [of the Internet]. These consensus-building bodies are not just a good mechanism to develop robust and flexible open standards; their decision-making processes could also be applied to other issues, such as the regulation of directories...These communities are guided by respected members, known as 'elders' or 'benevolent dictators'..., who have gained their status because of the quality of their contributions."

Given the heat and light generated by the debates over the policy implications of technology, the Public Policy pillar of the Internet Society has a unique role. Its first concern is to develop public policy positions and statements on issues of particular concern to the membership. More important, it will focus on those when the technological expertise available to the society can be brought to bear. In RFC 2850-the Charter of the Internet Architecture Board-one of functions of the IAB is described as follows: "The IAB acts as a source of advice and guidance to the Board of Trustees and Officers of the Internet Society concerning technical, architectural, procedural, and (where appropriate) policy matters pertaining to the Internet and its enabling technologies." That close connection between ISOC and the IAB has already enabled the society to speak out on public policy issues more clearly than many other public voices. ISOC's Public Policy pillar is significantly better informed, from a technology standpoint, precisely because of its relationship with IETF, IAB, IESG, and IRTF. In addition, the society recently created the Internet Societal Task Force to consider issues and concerns such as the digital divide and open standards.

Recent examples of policy statements include a press release on privacy and technology, which argues that the mere availability of technology to intrude on Internet users' privacy is not a justification for putting that technology to use. Other areas of concern are access to the Internet (costs of connection), IPv6, internationalized domain names, public key encryption, digital signatures, and threats to the single root.

It is in this spirit of technologically informed comment on important public issues that we are proud to present this Public Policy issue of OnTheInternet.

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