The Elders of the Internet

I am not sure how many of you are fans of ‘The IT Crowd’, the British sitcom starring Richard Ayoade (Moss), Katherine Parkinson (Jen), Chris O’Dowd (Roy), who are employees at the IT department of the fictional Reynholm Industries. If you have seen enough of the show, you will know that it presumes hyperbolic levels of lack of understanding among regular folk about technology in everyday life. 

In one of the episodes, Moss convinces Jen, who is representative of the writers’ view of average human computer literacy, that the internet is contained in a small black box and to use it as an exhibit during her speech for winning the employee of the month. The setup is quite hilarious, notably with ‘television gold’ like the box is light because the internet doesn’t weigh anything, or it is kept at the top of Big Ben because that’s where you get the best reception, and my personal favourite, that the elders of the internet were so impressed by Jen winning the employee of the month that they wanted to do everything that they could do to help.

Except, not all of it is a ruse. The Elders of the Internet exist.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

They are the Internet Engineering Task Force or IETF.

IETF was founded in 1986 and “has since provided a place for people to meet and collectively design the architecture of the web

The mission of the IETF is “to produce high quality, relevant technical and engineering documents that influence the way people design, use, and manage the internet in such a way as to make the internet work better”

“We reject: kings, presidents, and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code”

IETF Motto

The IETF is an open network of international volunteers who are network designers, researchers, network operators – basically people motivated to build, operate, and improve the architecture of the internet. 

The Elders of the Internet did something really cool this past week. They gave the internet an upgrade. 

The following is a brief history of the internet, an overview of which is important to make sense of last week’s events. 

During the Cold War, the US government wanted to understand how to communicate securely in the event of a Soviet attack on the nation’s telecommunication system (which was basically the telephone system). The paranoia of those times did not just lead to space programs, it also resulted in other phenomenal technological advancements, including the internet.

It started in 1962 with JCR Licklider’s Intergalactic Computer Network which allowed computers to interact with each other, i.e., send and receive data. This was considered a viable solution to a potential communication failure. Simultaneously, different computer networks started popping around the world through the 1970s. A natural next question was – how do we connect these different networks spread across the globe onto a single platform?

Enter Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn, who created a method that would allow individual networks to interact with one another. Of course, these networks had to be designed with the same protocols, and global partnerships paved the way for that. They called this the ‘Transmission Control Protocol/ Internet Protocol’ or in familiar parlance, TCP/IP. After running tests in the late 1970s, the US military adopted TCP/IP as the preferred standard for all computer networking on January 1, 1983. Understandably, the inherent complexity and technical standards of the protocols evolved since the 1980s as networks became that much more complex. These technical standards and its underlying protocols are maintained by the IETF aka ‘The Elders of the Internet’.

On 3rd June, IETF announced the approval of “a  new Internet transport technology that improves web application performance, security, and privacy”. IETF reviewed, redesigned, and improved Google’s original application over five years before approving QUIC as a new technical standard for the transport layer that could potentially replace TCP as the preferred technology. (QUIC is interestingly not an acronym for anything technical although it was initially proposed to imply Quick UDP Internet Connections)

“QUIC was first deployed in 2013 as an upgrade to Google Chrome that improved the speed at which data was shifted from the browser to company servers. After that, the protocol was tested in a number of different contexts and applications, before being submitted to the IETF for consideration in 2016….

In a paper published in 2017, Google stated that QUIC is capable of improving loading speeds for search queries by 8% on desktop and cutting back YouTube buffering times by up to 18% (and it’s possible these figures may be even more impressive today). Websites and services that utilize encrypted connections are also expected to enjoy a particularly sizable speed increase”


The approval does not however mean it is going to instantly set the World Wide Web ablaze. Migrating from TCP to QUIC will not be seamless as a large part of existing networks are built around TCP protocols.

Adoption of this standard will not be quite QUIC, I would say. It’s mighty impressive on every measure though!

Here’s a cool excerpt from a long read on The Guardian that details views on the downside to working from home. Among other things, it talks about a very peculiar ‘professional ritual’ at IETF. 

To cultivate “rough consensus”, IETF members devised a distinctive ritual: humming. When they needed to make a crucial decision, the group asked everyone to hum to indicate “yay” or “nay” – and proceeded on the basis of which was loudest. The engineers considered this less divisive than voting.

Some of the biggest decisions about how the internet works have been made using this ritual. In March 2018, in a bland room of the Hilton Metropole on London’s Edgware Road, representatives from Google, Intel, Amazon, Qualcomm and others were gathered for an IETF meeting. They were debating a controversial issue: whether or not to adopt the “draft-rhrd-tls-tls13-visibility-01” protocol. To anybody outside the room, it might sound like gobbledegook, but this protocol was important. Measures were being introduced to make it harder for hackers to attack crucial infrastructure such as utility networks, healthcare systems and retail groups. This was a mounting concern at the time – a year or so earlier, hackers seemingly from Russia had shut down the Ukrainian power system. The proposed “visibility” protocol would signal to internet users whether or not anti-hacking tools had been installed.

For an hour the engineers debated the protocol. Some opposed telling users the tools had been installed; others insisted on it. “There are privacy issues,” one said. “It’s about nation states,” another argued. “We cannot do this without consensus.” So a man named Sean Turner – who looked like a garden gnome, with a long, snowy-white beard, bald head, glasses and checked lumberjack shirt – invoked the IETF ritual.

“We are going to hum,” he said. “Please hum now if you support adoption.” A moan rose up, akin to a Tibetan chant, bouncing off the walls of the Metropole. “Thanks. Please hum now if you oppose.” There was a much louder collective hum. “So at this point there is no consensus to adopt this,” Turner declared. The protocol was put on ice.

Also, here’s a cool profile on IETF by Wired from way back in 1995!

And finally, here’s that epic scene from the IT Crowd!

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