Combating Censorship and Highlighting the Politics of Protocols at IETF99

Last month, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) held its 99th meeting in Prague, Czech Republic. More than 1200 participants from over 60 countries gathered from July 16 to 22 to discuss the latest developments in the evolution and management of the Internet’s technical architecture. As usual, the majority of the attendees were network designers, operators, vendors, and researchers, but a growing cohort of civil society representatives and human rights defenders were also present. ARTICLE 19 was a leader among them, organizing a 2-day “Hackathon” side event, co-chairing the Human Rights Protocol Considerations Research Group (HRPC RG) – which investigates if and how Internet standards and protocols enable, reinforce, or threaten human rights – and giving a talk on human rights and technology at the Internet Society (ISOC) Fellows luncheon.

“Hackathons” are typically held the weekend before IETF meetings, and are designed to encourage developers to “discuss, collaborate, and develop utilities, ideas, sample code and solutions that show practical implementations of IETF standards.” During the IETF99 Hackathon, ARTICLE 19’s team focused on developing tools for the implementation of Error Code 451 (“Unavailable for Legal Reasons”). The status code – a reference to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 – was introduced in February 2016 for use when Error Codes 403 (“Forbidden”) or 404 (“Not Found”) are not applicable. Use of the error code makes it easier to recognize and monitor digital censorship.

Comprising researchers, computer scientists, and policy experts, the Hackathon’s 451 Team developed several tools to make monitoring and reporting instances of Error Code 451 more transparent. These developments included a web crawler for data collection, browser and wordpress plugins, and implementation reports in various countries, including Russia and Turkey. Notably, this was the first public interest Hackathon in IETF history, and the 451 Team won the Hackathon award for Best New Work.

The results of the 2-day Hackathon were presented at the Human Rights Protocols and Considerations Research Group (HRPC RG) session by ARTICLE 19’s Internet of Rights Fellows Alp Toker and Olga Khrustaleva, who were part of the 451 Team. A new Internet Draft (ID) On the Politics of Standardswas also launched during the meeting, joining the HRPC’s other ongoing IDs on Human Rights Protocol Considerations,Anonymity, and Freedom of Association.

One of the most debated issues at the HRPC session was whether human rights can be incorporated in protocol design. In the keynote presentation, Milton Mueller,  author of Networks and States, argued that protocols are usually designed before human rights violations become apparent, making it hard to predict how protocols might put human rights at risk. Mueller also mentioned that designers would likely object policymakers “looking over your shoulder” while they are writing code. These remarks were countered by several IETF veterans, who pointed out that Internet is always in the process of redesigning itself via new algorithms and protocols. Therefore, human rights considerations can and should be incorporated in the design process. Though the outcome may be hard to predict, members of the group asserted that designers can and should keep human rights as a consideration and question the extent to which protocols can be political—not because of policymakers’ orders, but because of designers’ self awareness.

If you’re interested in the work of the HRPC research group, you can find more information on HRPC website or by subscribing to the HRPC mailing list.  To learn more about the intersection of human rights and Internet architecture more broadly, check out ARTICLE 19’s short documentary film, “Net of Rights”.