mark nottingham

RFC 9518 - What Can Internet Standards Do About Centralisation?

Tuesday, 19 December 2023

Internet and Web Standards Tech Regulation

RFC 9518: Centralization, Decentralization, and Internet Standards has been published, after more than two years of review, discussion, and revision.

It’s no secret that most people have been increasingly concerned about Internet centralization over the last decade or so. Having one party (or a small number of them) with a choke hold over any important part of the Internet is counter to its nature: as a ‘network of networks’, the Internet is about fostering relationships between peers, not allowing power to accrue to a few.

As I’ve discussed previously, Internet standards bodies (like the IETF and W3C) can be seen as a kind of regulator, in that they constrain the behaviour of others. So it’s natural to wonder whether they can help avoid or mitigate Internet centralization.

I started drafting a document that explored these issues when I was a member of the Internet Architecture Board. That eventually became draft-nottingham-avoiding-internet-centralization, which became an Independent Stream RFC today.

But it was a long journey. I started this work optimistic that standards could make a difference, in part because Internet standards bodies are (among many things) communities of people who are deeply invested in the success of the Internet, with a set of shared end user-focused values.

That optimism was quickly tempered. After digging into the mechanisms that we have available, the way that the markets work, and the incentives on the various actors, it became apparent that it was unrealistic to expect that standards documents – which of course don’t have any intrinsic power or authority if no one implements them – are up to the task of controlling centralization.

Furthermore, centralization is inherently difficult to eradicate: while you can reduce or remove some forms of it, it has a habit of popping up elsewhere.

That doesn’t mean that standards bodies should ignore centralization, or that there isn’t anything they can do to improve the state of the world regarding it (the RFC explores several); rather, that we should not expect standards to be sufficient to effectively address it on their own.

You can read the RFC for the full details. It covers what centralization is, how it can be both beneficial and harmful, the decentralization strategies we typically use to control it, and finally what Internet standards bodies can do in relation to it.

One final note: I’d be much less satisfied with the result if I hadn’t had the excellent reviews that Eliot Lear (the Independent Submissions Editor) sourced from Geoff Huston and Milton Mueller. Many thanks to them and everyone else who contributed.