How the IETF picks it leaders

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) recently concluded its annual leadership selection process. Members of the incoming Internet Architecture Board (IAB), the IETF Trust, the IETF Administration LLC (IETF LLC) Board of Directors, and the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG)—which provides leadership for the IETF—have been officially announced, with new members selected by the 2022-2023 IETF Nominating Committee (NomCom).

As chair of the NomCom, one of my goals has been to provide more transparency into how the nomination process works. This post gives an overview of the governance structure, and what makes it, and the selection process, unique.

Full details are described in the collection of RFCs known as Best Current Practice (BCP) 101. (RFCs [Requests for Comment] are the “standards documents” of the IETF.)

About the IETF

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is one of the most important standards organizations for the Internet. 

The Internet Society (ISOC) is a non-profit organization that was established to build and promote the Internet. One of their core functions is to fund the IETF. The IETF itself has two legal entities, one of them is a subsidiary of ISOC, and one is completely independent:

  • IETF Administration LLC
    Corporate home for the IETF and the Internet Architecture Board (IAB); provides fiscal and administrative support.
  • IETF Trust
    Legal entity that holds the copyrights and trademarks of all IETF output.

The LLC handles the financial matters, signs contracts with hotels for the meetings, hires staff, and the like. The Trust is a separate non-profit entity that holds the copyright and trademarks to the RFCs and the like. This is done so that no matter what happens, the RFC documents will always be freely available to everyone. Both of these have a Board. When most people think of the IETF, however, they think of the volunteer technical community and its leadership:

  • Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG)
    (Area Directors) Responsible for technical management of IETF activities and the Internet standards process.
  • Internet Architecture Board (IAB)
    Provides oversight of the Internet architecture and the standards process.

The Nominations Committee (NomCom), is responsible for filling the vacancies on these entities. The president of ISOC chooses the NomCom chair. NomCom’s job is to solicit volunteers, investigate and discuss them, and make recommendations. Each slate of recommendations is approved by a different body. That is, the IESG confirms NomCom’s choices for the LLC and the Trust board members, while the IAB confirms NomCom’s choices for IESG, and the ISOC Board confirms the IAB slate.

NomCom’s structure is a little unusual. There are ten “voting volunteers” picked from the community, using qualifications outlined in the BCP document linked above. There is an RFC that describes how to generate the random numbers and use those to pick the volunteers. The goal is to have a random, but repeatable, process so that the Chair cannot bias the committee by picking favorites since anyone can repeat, and verify, the choices.

In addition to the voting volunteers, each of the four organizations listed above, and the previous NomCom chair, act as non-voting liaisons to the committee. Their purpose is to answer questions about the job requirements, and advise the new incoming chair how things were done previously. 

All of the knowledge about how NomCom works is handed down from “generation to generation.” This also means that some obvious questions (like “How big is the time commitment?”) aren’t really known. One thing I promised to do when I was picked to serve as NomCom chair was to write up all the details to add more knowledge and transparency for the IETF community. I’m in the process of writing that document now and it will, as you might expect, be published as an RFC soon. For now, at least, we voted to make our Wiki public.

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