Diversity at any price? IETF looking for a new chair

2020-12-16 Blog

The ongoing search for a new IETF Chair offers the community a possibility to look into diversity issues and choose a candidate sponsored by one of the newer participants in the standardisation process. It is unfortunate that the most plausible candidate from the standpoint of diversity, is sponsored by Chinese vendor Huawei, who is currently locked in a trade war with the US.

Huawei already sends more developers to the IETF than the most long-standing participants in internet standardisation. For IETF 109 Huawei and its subsidiary Futurewei together registered 92 attendees, while Cisco, one of the oldest sponsors of the IETF and employer of reigning Chair Alissa Cooper, this time registered a mere 66. According to Cooper’s statistics for IETF 109, Chinese companies and universities additionally stepped up to become the second biggest group of participants after the US participant cohort.

Two candidates for the chair position, Barry Leiba and Alvaro Retana, are employed by the research focused Huawei subsidiary Futurewei and a third candidate, UK based consultant Adrian Farell, is known to have cooperated with Huawei on a number of projects. In the run-up, it seems clear that Huawei is seeking to sponsor their first IETF Chair.

Full time positions

The IETF Chair position is a near full-time job. Job tasks include overseeing IETF work in general and the work of the IESG, the peer body of the IETF, in particular. IETF Chairs serve as director of the so called General Area workstream, which is tasked with things like the recent disentangling from the Internet Society. Plus the IETF Chair has to represent the IETF to the outside world, as well as in various internet governance related bodies.

The IETF LLC, the organisation formally charged with running IETF meetings and intersessional infrastructure, does not remunerate the position, so individuals taking on the role have to be supported financially by their employers or industry partners. Historically, one of the more curious sponsorships was certainly the United States National Security Agency’s sponsorship of 2007 -2013 Chair Russ Housley.

Anti-Huawei climate

If US public authorities have previously sponsored chairs directly, and the IETF is on the look-out for improving its representational diversity anyway, why should there not be a Huawei-sponsored IETF boss?

For the IETF Nomination Committee, formally responsible for selecting suitable candidates for important positions, the heavy political bias against Huawei and other Chinese vendors in the US and some of its allies is certainly a complication. This bias is on clear display both by trade sanctions and entity listings in the US, as well as in a number of European Union countries. Another illustration of this bias is the so called Clean Network Initaitive from the US State department.

The IETF is not under US regulation, one US observer notes, so no legal issue would arise. But according to this long-time IETF expert, it could be a problem politically if some “crusading congress critter” wanted to make an issue of it. And despite the State Department changing hands soon, the anti-China hysteria might very well stay around because the incoming president could be expected to tread carefully if only to push back against early “China puppet” screams.

On the list of candidates are:

  • Adrian Farrel, Old Dog Consulting
  • Alvaro Retana, Futurwei
  • Barry Leiba, Futurwei
  • Deborah Brungard, AT&T
  • Fred Baker, Consultant, Board Member at ISC, and former IETF Chair
  • Lars Eggert, NetApp
  • Rich Salz, Akamai



This article was written for CENTR by Monika Ermert. Monika has been working as an IT journalist for over 20 years. She has covered the evolving internet governance landscape, EU and worldwide attempts to regulate and the risks and fun of technology. She holds an M.A. in Chinese/Media Studies from the University of Tuebingen and lives and works in Munich, Germany.