The following text is copyright 1999 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.

When in Washington

by Scott Bradner

The IETF went to Washington and did what the Washingtonians do most often -- play politics. We tried to figure out if we should put special features into our protocols to support wiretapping and other legal intercept methods. My own view is that we came away with little support for the idea that the IETF should go out of its way to support legal intercept but at the same time there was not consensus that we should prohibit all discussion of the topic.

The issue of the IETF doing work on legal intercept technologies came up as a byproduct of the extensive work that the IETF is now doing in the area if IP-based telephony. It should not come as a surprise that in many places around the world, including the U.S., telephone companies must be able to provide law enforcement with information about phone calls, such as who is calling whom and how long the call is, along with the audio stream from selected calls. Companies that build telephone equipment feel that they must add features to their equipment to support these activities since their customers must be able to do the functions. Some traditional telephony standards organizations have supported this by adding intercept features to their telephony-related standards. Since the future of the telephone seems to be intertwined with the Internet it is inevitable that the primary Internet standards organization would be faced with the issue sooner or later.

In this case some of the participants of one of the IETF working groups working on a new standard for communication between components of a distributed phone switch brought up the issue. (Not the FBI as was reported in some places.) Since adding features of this type would be an important change in direction the IETF management decided to have a public discussion before deciding if the working group should go ahead. A new mailing list was created ( for this discussion. Close to 500 people subscribed to the list and about 10% of those sent at least one message to the list. The discussion on this list was a precursor to a discussion held during the IETF plenary in Washington.

Twenty nine people spoke during the plenary session. Opinions ranged from libertarian" 'governments have no right to wiretap' - to pragmatic: 'it will be done somewhere, best have it done where the technology was developed'. At the end of the discussion there was a show of hands to indicate opinions: should the IETF add special features, not do this or abstain. There was not much support for adding the intercept features but enough people abstained that there was not what the IETF would gage to be rough consensus (80% or more) against all such activities.

This was an interesting example of participatory democracy, and like many others, did not produce a clear result.

disclaimer: Harvard has watched various forms of government come & go and did not express an opinion on this issue.