The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) develops and promotes voluntary Internet standards, in particular the standards that comprise the Internet protocol suite (TCP/IP). It is an open standards organization, with no formal membership or membership requirements. All participants and managers are volunteers, though their work is usually funded by their employers or sponsors.
The IETF started out as an activity supported by the U.S. federal government, but since 1993 it has operated as a standards development function under the auspices of the Internet Society, an international membership-based non-profit organization.
The IETF is organized into a large number of working groups and informal discussion groups (BoFs), each dealing with a specific topic and operates in a bottom-up task creation mode, largely driven by these working groups. Each working group has an appointed chairperson (or sometimes several co-chairs), along with a charter that describes its focus, and what and when it is expected to produce. It is open to all who want to participate, and holds discussions on an open mailing list or at IETF meetings, where the entry fee in July 2014 was USD $650 per person.
Rough consensus is the primary basis for decision making. There are no formal voting procedures. Because the majority of the IETF's work is done via mailing lists, meeting attendance is not required for contributors. Each working group is intended to complete work on its topic and then disband. In some cases, the WG will instead have its charter updated to take on new tasks as appropriate.
The working groups are organized into areas by subject matter. Current areas are Applications, General, Internet, Operations and Management, Real-time Applications and Infrastructure, Routing, Security, and Transport. Each area is overseen by an area director (AD), with most areas having two co-ADs. The ADs are responsible for appointing working group chairs. The area directors, together with the IETF Chair, form the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG), which is responsible for the overall operation of the IETF.
The IETF is overseen by the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), which oversees its external relationships, and relations with the RFC Editor. The IAB is also jointly responsible for the IETF Administrative Oversight Committee (IAOC), which oversees the IETF Administrative Support Activity (IASA), which provides logistical, etc. support for the IETF. The IAB also manages the Internet Research Task Force (IRTF), with which the IETF has a number of cross-group relations.
A Nominating Committee (NomCom) of ten randomly chosen volunteers who participate regularly at meetings is vested with the power to appoint, reappoint, and remove members of the IESG, IAB, IASA, and the IAOC. To date, no one has been removed by a NomCom, although several people have resigned their positions, requiring replacements.
In 1993 the IETF changed from an activity supported by the U.S. government to an independent, international activity associated with the Internet Society, an international membership-based non-profit organization. Because the IETF itself does not have members, nor is it an organization per se, the Internet Society provides the financial and legal framework for the activities of the IETF and its sister bodies (IAB, IRTF, …). IETF activities are funded by meeting fees, meeting sponsors and by the Internet Society via its organizational membership and the proceeds of the Public Interest Registry.
In December 2005 the IETF Trust was established to manage the copyrighted materials produced by the IETF.
The first IETF meeting was attended by 21 U.S.-government-funded researchers on 16 January 1986. It was a continuation of the work of the earlier GADS Task Force. Representatives from non-governmental entities were invited to attend starting with the fourth IETF meeting in October 1986. Since that time all IETF meetings have been open to the public.
Initially, the IETF met quarterly, but from 1991, it has been meeting three times a year. The initial meetings were very small, with fewer than 35 people in attendance at each of the first five meetings. The maximum attendance during the first 13 meetings was only 120 attendees. This occurred at the 12th meeting held during January 1989. These meetings have grown in both participation and scope a great deal since the early 1990s; it had a maximum attendance of 2,810 at the December 2000 IETF held in San Diego, CA. Attendance declined with industry restructuring during the early 2000s, and is currently around 1,200.
The location for IETF meetings vary greatly. A list of past and future meeting locations can be found on the IETF meetings page. The IETF strives to hold its meetings near where most of the IETF volunteers are located. For many years, the goal was three meetings a year, with two in North America and one in either Europe or Asia, alternating between them every other year. The current goal is to hold three meetings in North America, two in Europe and one in Asia during a two-year period. However, corporate sponsorship of the meetings is also an important factor and the schedule has been modified from time to time in order to decrease operational costs.
The details of IETF operations have changed considerably as the organization has grown, but the basic mechanism remains publication of proposed specifications, development based on the proposals, review and independent testing by participants, and republication as a revised proposal, a draft proposal, or eventually as an Internet Standard. 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. Multiple, working, useful, interoperable implementations are the chief requirement before an IETF proposed specification can become a standard. Most specifications are focused on single protocols rather than tightly interlocked systems. This has allowed the protocols to be used in many different systems, and its standards are routinely re-used by bodies which create full-fledged architectures (e.g. 3GPP IMS).
Because it relies on volunteers and uses "rough consensus and running code" as its touchstone, results can be slow whenever the number of volunteers is either too small to make progress, or so large as to make consensus difficult, or when volunteers lack the necessary expertise. For protocols like SMTP, which is used to transport e-mail for a user community in the many hundreds of millions, there is also considerable resistance to any change that is not fully backwards compatible. Work within the IETF on ways to improve the speed of the standards-making process is ongoing but, because the number of volunteers with opinions on it is very great, consensus on improvements have been slow to develop.
The IETF cooperates with the W3C, ISO/IEC, ITU, and other standards bodies.
Statistics are available that show who the top contributors by RFC publication are. While the IETF only allows for participation by individuals, and not by corporations or governments, sponsorship information is available from these statistics.