What’s Wrong with Loud Men Talking Loudly? The IETF’s Culture Wars

The current culture wars over inclusion, sexism, and diversity have migrated from memes and message boards like Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan to an unlikely place: the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

Blanketed in obscure four-letter acronyms, the IETF’s work is crucial to the Internet’s functioning. It’s participants, many of them computer scientists, engineers, and (self-described) hackers, are at the forefront of developing core Internet protocols like Transport Layer Secure (TLS), which encrypts your data on the wire. Yet, in spite of its outsized technical influence, most Internet users have never even heard of this organization. Eschewing the spotlight, the IETF prides itself on its technical prowess and has expressed discomfort with any discussion deemed too “political.”

But that has begun to change in the last four years. Capturing the IETF’s 2018 discussion about how negative elements of its culture can scare off new participants, this video provides a snapshot of the transformations. Disputes include the politics of organizing IETF conferences in countries with poor track records on protecting LGBTQIA rights, and balancing the IETF’s traditionally direct (bordering on the abrasive) communication style with the need to foster inclusive, harassment-free netiquette on its mailing lists. Or as the speaker in the video mentions: “It is okay to be passionate, but just consider carefully where and how that passion is directed.” As this video shows, like many other organizations in the tech-sector, the IETF is going through a bit (no pun intended) of a cultural reckoning.

While many issues have been raised, a single question captures the discussion: is the IETF’s organizational culture sufficiently inclusive? And if not, what changes are its participants willing to make?

The IETF’s culture of governance is best captured by its famous, albeit unofficial, motto: “We believe in rough consensus and running code.” As others on this website have indicated, IETF working procedures are informal; working groups often congregate on publicly available mailing lists and participants prefer to hum, rather than vote, on proposals. But the IETF has also developed a reputation for running on “loud men talking loudly.” The IETF’s guidance document for newcomers even warns that participants “can sometimes be surprisingly direct, sometimes verging on rude.” Some IETF participants insist that these roughshod norms are crucial to getting the job done. Others argue that they sanction a working environment that is hostile to everyone but the (predominantly male) IETF veterans.

The current state-of-the-debate—as this video fragment captures so well—reflects the larger cultural moment, in which tech organizations are trying to redefine how they balance free speech and diversity concerns. The video also shows that there are good-faith attempts in the IETF to make the needed cultural reforms. Attempts notwithstanding, my research suggests that many of the issues mentioned in this 2018 video continue unabated in 2020. This is, in part, because the accountability mechanisms put in place are necessary but insufficient. They are often ex-ante, aimed at treating injuries after their occurrence, rather than seeking to prevent them in the first place—an approach that might require addressing root causes that can often be traced back to IETF culture.

In keeping with the IETF’s tradition of being blunt to the extent that it can be abrasive, I will offer this assessment: in order to engineer a welcoming culture, some of the IETF’s most treasured working habits will need to be upturned. There is an inherent contradiction in thinking that it is possible to, as the speaker in the video suggests, “ensure that our work, our culture and our distinct process of engagement through consensus remains in place long into the future” without dismantling those aspects of that “distinct process” which have caused the tensions that now exist. To put it more bluntly: the IETF’s lack of diversity is a direct function of the IETF’s culture. Like many other organizations in the tech sector, the IETF is struggling to apply its engineering excellence in the field of machine-to-machine communication to that of human interaction—because it assumes similar rules apply.

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