Steve Crocker (NY Times, April 2009): How the Internet Got Its Rules

by on Jan.20, 2011, under Uncategorized

(Original at New York Times)

Published: April 6, 2009

[. . .]

We thought maybe we’d put together a few temporary, informal memos on network protocols, the rules by which computers exchange information. I offered to organize our early notes.

What was supposed to be a simple chore turned out to be a nerve-racking project. Our intent was only to encourage others to chime in, but I worried we might sound as though we were making official decisions or asserting authority. In my mind, I was inciting the wrath of some prestigious professor at some phantom East Coast establishment. I was actually losing sleep over the whole thing, and when I finally tackled my first memo, which dealt with basic communication between two computers, it was in the wee hours of the morning. I had to work in a bathroom so as not to disturb the friends I was staying with, who were all asleep.

Still fearful of sounding presumptuous, I labeled the note a “Request for Comments.” R.F.C. 1, written 40 years ago today, left many questions unanswered, and soon became obsolete. But the R.F.C.’s themselves took root and flourished. They became the formal method of publishing Internet protocol standards, and today there are more than 5,000, all readily available online.

[. . .]

Less important than the content of those first documents was that they were available free of charge and anyone could write one. Instead of authority-based decision-making, we relied on a process we called “rough consensus and running code.” Everyone was welcome to propose ideas, and if enough people liked it and used it, the design became a standard.

After all, everyone understood there was a practical value in choosing to do the same task in the same way. For example, if we wanted to move a file from one machine to another, and if you were to design the process one way, and I was to design it another, then anyone who wanted to talk to both of us would have to employ two distinct ways of doing the same thing. So there was plenty of natural pressure to avoid such hassles. It probably helped that in those days we avoided patents and other restrictions; without any financial incentive to control the protocols, it was much easier to reach agreement.

This was the ultimate in openness in technical design and that culture of open processes was essential in enabling the Internet to grow and evolve as spectacularly as it has. In fact, we probably wouldn’t have the Web without it. When CERN physicists wanted to publish a lot of information in a way that people could easily get to it and add to it, they simply built and tested their ideas. Because of the groundwork we’d laid in the R.F.C.’s, they did not have to ask permission, or make any changes to the core operations of the Internet. Others soon copied them — hundreds of thousands of computer users, then hundreds of millions, creating and sharing content and technology. That’s the Web.

Put another way, we always tried to design each new protocol to be both useful in its own right and a building block available to others. We did not think of protocols as finished products, and we deliberately exposed the internal architecture to make it easy for others to gain a foothold. This was the antithesis of the attitude of the old telephone networks, which actively discouraged any additions or uses they had not sanctioned.

[. . .]

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