MSc Thesis Oxford Internet Institute

A Case Study of Coding Rights: Should Freedom of Speech Be Instantiated in the Protocols and Standards Designed by the Internet Engineering Task Force?


The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is one of the most important players in maintaining the technical architecture of the Internet. It plays a crucial role in managing the logical layer of the Internet, and designing the standards and protocols that define how information flows across the network. Considering the increased public and academic focus on the importance of value-sensitive design after the Snowden revelations in 2013, the limited body of literature on what role societal values could and should have in the development of Internet protocols and standards is surprising. This research aims to fill this knowledge gap by presenting an in-depth ethnographic case study of the Internet Engineering Task Force.

I ask the question what the role is and should be of human rights – in particular the right to freedom of speech – in the development of IETF Internet protocols and standards.

The data I present in this research gives a window into the day-to-day workings of the IETF. Through qualitative interviews, discourse analysis and participant observation I show that particular social values are being instantiated in protocols, but only when these values have the necessary technical properties and if there is no strong commercial or political pushback. I explain how the IETF’s unique position to influence the Internet’s design comes with a moral obligation to ensure its work is aligned with fundamental human rights principles. I also argue that various political, practical and commercial realities create a situation in which it is currently not feasible – or wise – for the IETF to instantiate human rights in protocols. On the basis of these findings I present several policy recommendations that ensure the work of the IETF accounts for human rights, and I make various suggestions for further research.

Keywords: Article 19, Code, Ethics, Freedom of Speech, Human Rights, Internet Architecture Management, Internet Engineering Task Force, Internet Fragmentation, Privacy-by-design, Protocols, Standards, Standard Setting Bodies, Technical Engineering, United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, Value Sensitive Design.