​Rough consensus and running code / Blog

​Rough consensus and running code primary image

Daniel Woods is currently studying for a DPhil in Cyber Security at University College, Oxford. He is a member of the 2016-2017 Global Leadership Initiative.


Search ‘Who controls…’ on Google and the top three auto-completes are ‘the world’, ‘the media’ and ‘the Internet’. Conspiracy theories abound regarding the first two. Meanwhile there is little disagreement that ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) and IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) are instrumental in coordinating the global community to use a common set of Internet standards.

The controversy surrounding this task, however, is not to be underestimated. Last year Ted Cruz accused President Obama of ‘giving up control of the internet’, referring to the transfer of a number of powers from the US Department of Commerce to ICANN.

The power transferred is analogous to that of a phone book publisher. A phone book provides an authoritative mapping of names to phone numbers. ICANN provides a mapping of domain names (what you type into address bars) to IP addresses (what your computer understands).

The power of ICANN is as delicate as that of a phone book publisher; anyone is free to publish a rival phone book. This ensures publishers are accountable as they seek to prevent rival publishers taking their market share. In a similar way, ICANN must remain accountable to global Internet users because the functioning of a truly world wide web depends on this ‘phone book of the internet’.

Here’s the issue when it comes to leadership: How does an organisation like ICANN or the IETF whose core functions depend on global consensus make decisions and exhibit leadership? Many involved in Internet governance believe the multistakeholder governance model provides the answer.

David Clark, involved in the development of the Internet since the 1970s, famously said, ‘We reject: kings, presidents and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code.’ Rough consensus is the philosophy that ‘the sense of the group’ should guide decision-making and that addressing opposing views is more important than counting votes. An IETF working group guideline states that ‘51% of the working group does not qualify as “rough consensus”’.

Mechanisms for drafting and deciding on policy must adapt to protect the fragile consensus that enables both ICANN and the IETF to function. One approach the IETF use is Request for Comments (RFC) as a means of outlining policy. The IETF allows any member of the community to publish an Internet Draft, which after extensive peer review can become a RFC. Another approach involves the chair asking for the room to hum, either for or against, rather than voting with a show of hands. Each of these processes allows objections to be raised by concerned stakeholders, without the paralysis of unanimous voting.

ICANN and the IETF must lead the global Internet community without compromising the consensus that they are the organisations to do so. They have developed inclusive decision-making structures to protect that fragile consensus. Leaders might well reflect on the multistakeholder ideal and ask whether their leadership style builds consensus by creating space for dissenting views. Doing so might combat the disillusionment with politics that is common to all sides of a fractured political landscape.

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