.org owner Internet Society puts its money where its mouth is with additional IETF funding

Has the TLD debacle forced ISOC back to its roots? Maybe


The Internet Society has agreed to place the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) on a firmer footing with a six-year funding commitment.

In a budget approved last week, and the details of which were revealed soon after, the non-profit agreed to supply the IETF with an annual contribution of $41.4m for the next six years. The IETF said in a statement that it would use the money for “core operations” and noted that the six-year agreement would “enable better financial planning.” Previously, the Internet Society (ISOC) funding has been supplied on a year-by-year basis.

More significantly, however, ISOC also agreed to fund the IETF up to an additional $30m over the same time frame with a new fundraising approach, where ISOC will match funds raised by the IETF itself. ISOC has agreed to a 2:1 match for the first $12m raised by the IETF and then a 1:1 match thereafter, up to $30m in total.

The changes put the IETF – which is the internet's leading standards-setting body – on a more professional footing, and a path to self-sufficiency. ISOC was in many respects created to act as a fundraiser and lobbying group for internet engineers who do most of their work through the IETF. But the subsequent financial reliance on ISOC, even though the IETF also raises money through sponsors and conference attendance fees, has not always resulted in a healthy dynamic.

The IETF has been moving toward greater autonomy for a number of years, most notably when a new company, IETF LLC, was created in 2018 to oversee the organization’s various activities and is now empowered to do things like sign its own contracts for meeting venues.

Critical focus

As for the funding-match component, the IETF’s Board chair Jason Livingood told The Register that it would immediately start looking for a new person to lead fundraising and that fundraising would “be a critical focus for the IETF LLC staff and board in 2021 and beyond.”

The fundraising will, he argued, have several advantages. As well as making the IETF “more fiscally prudent,” it will ensure the IETF has to “remain relevant and productive in the years and decades ahead.” In other words, it will make the organization stand on its own two feet.

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And that will be a critical step as the internet enters a new phase where the underlying protocols and standards themselves are starting to change to keep up with the modern world. The current pandemic has shown just how critically important the internet is not just to global commerce but to society as a whole.

But the current internet has also been the determined target of larger forces who see the enormous power that can be wielded through controlling or manipulating the processes and policies that decide how information flows across the network.

The IETF stands for the traditional model of developing new internet standards and protocols through consensus and open standards, not to mention a strong philosophy of open sharing of information and a focus on interoperability.

There is no reason to believe that will always be the case, and the IETF has often had to push back against more narrow interests in the past (not least the US government’s efforts to introduce backdoors). Those interests are only likely to get larger thanks to the dominance of a few tech giants and the focused involvement of nation states.

The good ole days

A decade ago, there was an effort by the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the Russian and Chinese governments to take more of a role in deciding how the internet evolved. It was largely beaten back at the time.

But those efforts continue apace, not least with China’s “New IP” proposal that would see more modern and efficient systems for networking management than the current TCP/IP approach. That proposed system would have clear advantages, but also have surveillance and control baked into it.

In order to compete, organizations like the IETF need to provide a better technological solution, not just one that is more philosophically in line with Western countries.

The other positive in the news that ISOC will fund the IETF over a longer timeframe and with fund-matching is that it demonstrates the organization might be returning to its roots and focusing on its core mission, after several years of imagining a much bigger role for itself in the world.

After the debacle that was ISOC's attempt to sell its rights over the .org internet registry for over $1bn to a private equity firm, something that the broader internet community felt was a wholesale sellout of its principles, ISOC has been under pressure to demonstrate it still serves the internet community rather than its own interests.

Reform-ish

That effort exists, albeit in a half-hearted fashion. The board created a new body to look at its governance and has started down the path of replacing its CEO, who heavily pushed the .org sale. It has also been discussing the needs of its members far more than usual and has set aside additional resources for ISOC chapters across the world.

However, a culture is hard to change and the board has insisted on maintaining complete control of any proposed changes to its governance. Its CEO and several board members continued to talk disdainfully about the organization’s membership at its August meeting and the organization still responds defensively to any criticism.

In that respect, showing greater support to the IETF is an easy win for ISOC. It may even stave off reform efforts. From the IETF’s perspective, getting away from ISOC, especially if it continues down its current toxic route, can only be a good thing.

But that’s politics. The new budget means the IETF can do more of what it really likes to focus on: internet standards. IETF LLC chair Livingood told us: “Part of this is helping the IETF become increasingly financially self-sufficient over time. But it comes back once again to enabling this key Internet standards organization to plan for and sustain itself over the long term. ®


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