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What is the Internet Engineering Task Force?

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is a vital, open global community of network designers, operators, vendors, and researchers concerned with the evolution of internet architecture and the smooth operation of the internet. It's where dedicated professionals collaborate to draft and promote voluntary internet standards and protocols. What impact might their decisions have on your daily internet experience?
Robert Grimmick
Robert Grimmick

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is a group of loosely organized volunteers who discuss, develop, and publicize Internet standards. The group has some very unorthodox methods and lacks any official authority to mandate or control standards, but has produced many of the Internet’s most popular and widely used protocols. Specific areas of interest or concern are addressed by specialized teams which make proposals that can go on to become standards. The IETF also works closely with other groups that focus on the development of the Internet.

As the Internet has no central authority or governing body, many of the technologies that have become standard were developed through direct user collaboration. The need for agreed-upon rules for communication became clear very quickly, and an ad-hoc community became the architects of the Internet by adopting, revising, or discarding different protocols and standards. The Internet Engineering Task Force operates in much the same way, with a motto of “rough consensus and working code.

Woman doing a handstand with a computer
Woman doing a handstand with a computer

The IETF is an unconventional entity in many ways. Some might argue it isn’t an entity at all, since it has never incorporated or formally organized itself. There is no formal membership or board of directors, and most of the actual work takes place on public e-mail lists that anyone can join. No government or international agreements have recognized the IETF, so the group can’t mandate that users adopt its standards. It describes itself as being merely a “collection of happenings.”

Despite its peculiar characteristics and relative lack of authority, the Internet Engineering Task Force has been responsible for creating or improving many of the most widely used online standards. A few of the standards the task force has helped popularize include the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) that powers the web, the Kerberos network authentication protocol, and the Post Office Protocol (POP) for e-mail service. The IETF has also been heavily involved in advancing version 6 of the Internet Protocol (IPv6), which includes more complex Internet addresses to increase the number of devices that can be connected to the network.

Most of the technical work by the Internet Engineering Task Force takes place in specialized teams of volunteers called Working Groups (WGs). Each WG has its own charter that outlines the team’s mission and area of focus. The efforts of a WG may eventually produce a type of document known as a Request for Comments (RFC). Historically, these documents were distributed informally among computer enthusiasts to request feedback, but in more modern usage an RFC may be used to formally publish a standard.

The Internet Engineering Task Force often cooperates with other Internet-related groups. It receives financial support from the Internet Society, a group dedicated to the spread and development of the World Wide Web. Standards created within the IETF are ultimately approved or rejected by the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG). An organization known as the Internet Research Task Force (IRTF) also works with the IETF on transitioning new technologies from an experimental stage to a more complete status suitable for average users.

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