HUMMING about standards is NOT VOTING, says IETF RFC

The sweet sound of rough consensus might need to become a bit more formal

It's nice to know that the 'net boffins of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), while they're dealing with trivia such as building an NSA-proof Internet, working out the next generation of routing protocols, making sure our VoIP calls connect, and slinging the 'net into the outer planets, can still find time for the really important things in life.

Such as: what's the significance of “humming” in IETF meetings?

So serious is the question that Qualcomm's Peter Resnick has devoted more than 8,000 words to an RFC: On Consensus and Humming in the IETF.

It's actually more serious than it sounds: Resnick's point is that some of the IETF's members are losing touch with the organisation's founding traditions and practises – and not just newbies: “in recent years we have seen participants (and even some folks in IETF leadership) who do not understand some of the subtleties of consensus-based decision making”, Resnick writes.

Referring back to the earliest days of the IETF, Resnick reiterates a 1992 principle enunciated by Dave Clark: “We reject: kings, presidents and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code.”

The point of rejecting voting as an IETF process: there's all too many standards bodies in which a coalition of interests imposes standards that are bad for users but good for those interests, whether they be vendors or governments. On the other hand, a demand for a unanimous consensus is impractical.

So the IETF has tried to work by getting enough consensus that all serious objections in a working group can be taken into account, without getting in the way of the main game, getting stuff working by engineering rather than theory.

However, the inevitable passage of time, expansion of the membership of the IETF, and turnover of personnel means that “rough consensus” is increasingly misunderstood, Resnick suggests, leading either to dissatisfaction with the process, or unsatisfactory outcomes.

Where does “humming” come into all this? Back to Resnick: “To reinforce that we do not vote, we have also adopted the tradition of 'humming': When, for example, we have face-to-face meetings and the chair of the working group wants to get a 'sense of the room', instead of a show of hands, sometimes the chair will ask for each side to hum on a particular question, either 'for' or 'against'.”

(Is the IETF familiar with the concept of “too much fun”?)

The serious points of the RFC shouldn't be overlooked: not only does it lay down the kinds of considerations that would be helpful for anyone taking part in IETF processes, it also provides an insight for outsiders into how the body that keeps our Internet functioning makes decisions.

At least, it will do so if the IETF can reach a rough consensus about the principles Resnick outlines. ®

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