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For something that does not exist, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has had quite an impact. Apart from TCP/IP itself, all of the basic technology of the Internet was developed or has been refined in the IETF. IETF working groups created the routing, management, and transport standards without which the Internet would not exist. IETF working groups have defined the security standards that will help secure the Internet, the quality of service standards that will make the Internet a more predictable environment, and the standard for the next generation of the Internet protocol itself.
These standards have been phenomenally successful. The Internet is growing faster than any single technology in history, far faster than the railroad, electric light, telephone, or television, and it is only getting started. All of this has been accomplished with voluntary standards. No government requires the use of IETF standards. Competing standards, some mandated by governments around the world, have come and gone and the IETF standards flourish. But not all IETF standards succeed. It is only the standards that meet specific real-world requirements and do well that become true standards in fact as well as in name.
The IETF and its standards have succeeded for the same sorts of reasons that the Open Source community is taking off. IETF standards are developed in an open, all-inclusive process in which any interested individual can participate. All IETF documents are freely available over the Internet and can be reproduced at will. In fact the IETF's open document process is a case study in the potential of the Open Source movement.
This essay will give a short history of the IETF, a review of the IETF organization and processes and, at the end, some additional thoughts on the importance of open standards, open documents, and Open Source.