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Data Spotlight: Request for Comments

Updated: May 13, 2019



Today we will be deep diving into the full archive of Request for Comments documents now stored forever on the permaweb, never to be lost.


Telling a history of the internet from its earliest days right up until this month, this dataset is a treasure trove of fascinating technological tidbits — so let’s get exploring!


What are 'Request for Comments' documents?


Request for Comments (RFCs) are plain text documents outlining an idea, specification, or protocol relating to the development of internet or web technologies. The purpose of publishing RFCs is, as the name suggests, to get feedback from readers about the specification being proposed.


RFCs have an efficient, standardised layout, from RFC 1 to RFC 8591

Since RFC 1 was published in 1969, over 8,000 more have been released - all of them right at the cutting edge. By paying close attention to RFCs, we can plot a detailed and accurate history of computing across the generations and into the future. We can better understand how new technologies are created, refined, improved, and ultimately how the best tech wins out to become the backbone of countless inventions, industries, and individuals’ lives.


We have therefore archived the entire history of all RFCs ever published, right onto the permaweb! We give special thanks to the enduring hard work of the Internet Engineering Taskforce for their dedication to pushing forward internet technologies, and their publication of RFCs.


Why is preserving RFCs so important?


RFCs are intended to precisely define the immutable standards for the technology they are describing.

It should be possible to entirely re-implement a technology by following an RFC specification.

Altogether, the RFC archive is essentially an instruction manual for building — or re-building — our modern world.


Continued, reliable access to these specifications is absolutely vital. They are the building blocks of all computing technologies, empowering computers to operate and communicate with each other. By archiving these documents on the permaweb, we are setting these essential, immutable standards in stone, never to be lost.


My Highlights: Notable RFCs


Here, we will deep dive into a few noteworthy RFCs to better understand the vast wealth of knowledge contained within this dataset. Given the vast scope of RFCs I can only touch on a few here, and would therefore recommend you take your own deep dive into the archive here!



World-changing protocols and technologies


ASCII (RFC 20)


Written in 1969, this RFC refers to the ASCII standard (the American Standard Code for Information Interchange), which despite some tweaks and improvements, has remained largely unchanged for almost 50 years. This is a character set used for computing and telephony purposes, and throughout its lifetime it has helped internet-connected devices communicate with each other in a standardised form. In fact, ASCII has been so important in the world of electronic engineering that it was declared one of the IEEE’s historical milestones.


Although originally created and specified with a highly practical purpose in mind, ASCII can of course also be a medium for great artistic expression…


ASCII art, sourced from asciiart.eu

The original ASCII RFC has a notable author — Vint Cerf, one of the ‘fathers of the internet’. Cerf was instrumental in the creation of the TCP/IP protocol and the creation of ICANN, and he led the engineering of the first internet-connected electronic mail system, MCI Mail, in 1983.


For some instructional unicorn-related ACSII content, check out this April Fools’ Day publication (RFC 8140) from 2017, ‘The Arte of ASCII: Or, An True and Accurate Representation of an Menagerie of Thynges Fabulous and Wonderful in Ye Forme of Character’! Releasing fun and satirical RFCs on the 1st of April is a long-standing tradition, started with the publication of RFC 527, a parody poem of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, titled ‘ARPAWORKY’. For a long list of April Fools’ Day RFCs, check out this Wikipedia entry.


File Transfer Protocol (RFC 959)


As its name suggests, the ‘File Transfer Protocol’ (FTP) is a protocol facilitating the transfer of files between clients and servers on a network. The history of FTP is very long, as the original specification was laid out in 1971, in RFC 114, pre-dating operating systems as we know them today.


RFC 959 contains the current specification of the FTP protocol, which has been in use since 1985. Although the protocol was originally laid out in RFC 114, at that time it ran on NCP rather than the modern-day TCP/IP protocol.


Internet Relay Chat Protocol (RFC 1459)


Well known and loved by many in tech circles, IRC is an application layer protocol used extensively for online group communications in the early years of the internet. In 2003, there were around 1 million unique users of the IRC protocol, but this declined for various reasons to around 400,000 by 2012.


Historically, IRC was a convenient method of communication given it’s very low bandwidth usage and distributed nature, and was the backbone of online tech communities for many years.


The Internet Gopher Protocol (RFC 1436)


The Gopher protocol is a TCP/IP application layer protocol, designed to provide distributed document search and retrieval. Intentionally designed to mirror the efficient, menu-based navigation of a file system itself, it was eventually outshone and overtaken by HTTP.


When first designed in 1991, Gopher was quickly a real competitor to the World Wide Web and HTTP, with some contemporaries even believing that in the battle for the Internet, ‘Gopher seems to have won out’. Gopher services were quick to establish themselves, and were quite popular and well-suited to the academic environments they emerged from.



The Overbite Project hosts a free open source gopher client

Some dedicated Gopher users and servers are still functioning, and communities like The Overbite Project remain staunch advocates of the benefits of Gopherspace over, or in parallel to, the World Wide Web. In fact, as of May 2019, there are 333 unique gopher servers active, with 4.1 million unique selectors, as indexed by the Veronica Gopherspace search engine. Interestingly, these statistics have shown a gradual, steady rise over the past few years, from around 160 servers in 2012.


In fact, we find Gopherspace, its rise, and its (partial!) decline so interesting that we will be featuring it in a future data spotlight all of its own — so watch this space!


Internet Protocol, Version 6 (IPv6) (RFC 2460)


IPv6 is the newest version of the Internet Protocol. This is the protocol that identifies and locates devices on the internet — from phones to smart fridges, every device has a unique address. Developed by the Internet Engineering Taskforce, IPv6 was intended to address the upcoming shortage of device location addresses on the internet. This RFC is a full specification for IPv6 and was published in 1998, though it was not ratified as an Internet Standard until 2017.


During the 1980s it became increasingly clear that the previous IPv4 protocol would soon run out of addresses to assign to new internet-connected devices, and IPv6 was created to solve this. Today, we have wildly exceeded the number of IPv4 addresses that would ever have been available — 4,294,967,296. Now, there are over 17 billion internet-connected devices globally, with this predicted to rise to over 29 billion by 2022 — with most of this increase from IoT (‘internet of things’) devices. So, naturally, the IPv6 specification and therefore this RFC are vital parts of the history of the web.



Encryption technologies


The MD5 Message-Digest Algorithm (RFC 1321)


As the RFC document itself puts it, this algorithm ‘takes as input a message of arbitrary length and produces as output a 128-bit “fingerprint” or “message digest” of the input’. Originally created as a cryptographic hashing function, we have since learnt it’s unfit for encryption purposes, as it’s way too vulnerable to collision attacks.


However, despite the well-documented vulnerabilities, some online services do insist on continuing to use unsalted MD5 hashes, resulting in predictable results for their users. Even today though, the MD5 algorithm has useful practical applications, such as in comparison and matching functions.


OpenPGP Message Format (RFC 4880)


PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) was originally specified in RFC 1991, subsequently OpenPGP was created in 2007 to address some intellectual property/patent concerns with the original PGP specification.


Since its inception, PGP has been widely used for sending and receiving encrypted messages, using a secure public key/private key system. However in 2018, analysts found several potentially critical security vulnerabilities in the protocol specification. These were worrying enough that the EFF advised users to turn off and avoid PGP ‘for now’. A few months later, they published updated guidance advising users how best to ‘Turn back on PGP as safely as possible’, as EFF experts felt that many of the concerns had been addressed, though others remain unconvinced.



Ethical behaviour online


Ethics and The Internet (RFC 1087)


This RFC is a brief explanation of the Internet Activities Board’s (IAB) policy regarding online behaviour. By 1989, a large array of research activity and infrastructure relied on the consistent, reliable functioning of the internet and their servers.


In this RFC, the IAB tries to emphasise a sense of collective responsibility, urging people to be considerate and to consciously avoid disrupting other people’s internet access by being conservative with bandwidth and space usage.


Nettiquette (RFC 1855)


This is essentially an expanded, updated version of the RFC above (RFC 1087). It’s a document outlining a set of suggested guidelines for individuals’ and institutions’ online behaviour. This is quite interesting, as it moves away from the assumption that the internet is only for researchers and institutions, and reflects the reality that in 1995 many households had their own internet connection. By the time that the UK government started collecting this data in 1998, 9% of UK households had internet access at home.


The guidelines cover a surprising range of topics, from email etiquette, how to find and join new mailing lists, and how to disagree civilly with other users online. Some of the guidelines are remarkably relevant even today, such as the guidance regarding emails of, “Watch cc’s when replying. Don’t continue to include people if the messages have become a 2-way conversation.”, and “Use mixed case. UPPER CASE LOOKS AS IF YOU’RE SHOUTING.”.


‘A good rule of thumb: Be conservative in what you send and liberal in what you receive’

However, other pieces of advice seem very quaint today, including guidance to steer clear of popular websites during “rush hour” (due to low bandwidth availability and subsequent high costs), and to ask someone’s permission before sharing large amounts of data with them, so as to avoid over-burdening their email servers or hard drives. Advice for system administrators urges them to consider that not all users will have graphical user interfaces, and to be considerate of this when designing services and infrastructure!


It’s fascinating to reflect on how netiquette has developed over the past few decades, and how some people tried to shape the space to be kinder and more productive, in its early days.


A history of RFCs


RFC 1


As Steve Crocker — internet hall of fame inductee and RFC 1 author — puts it himself in the review ’30 Years of RFCs’, the very first RFC itself was “a modest and entirely forgettable memo, but it has significance because it was part of a broad initiative whose impact is still with us today.”. I couldn’t put it better myself, so I won’t try! Technically speaking, the very first RFC requested feedback on plans for building Interface Message Processors (IMPs) for the ARPANET.


30 Years of RFCs (RFC 2555)


Exactly 30 years after the first RFC was published on paper, RFC number 2555 was released as a celebration of the past three decades of such publications. As you can see above, an array of engineering and computing legends participated in the anniversary RFC, including RFC 1 author Steve Crocker and ‘father of the internet’ Vint Cerf.


This document includes reflections on how the paper copies of early RFCs were organised (or, indeed, how disorganised they were!), the circumstances and implications of RFC 1, and how the originators felt about the impact of RFCs in the three decades of the format’s lifespan. RFCs are being published today — you can see the latest right here, in the Internet Engineering Taskforce’s index.


I hope you enjoyed this little dive into the history of RFCs, and of the internet itself! To check out the IETF’s index of all RFCs yourself head here.


If you enjoyed this, make sure to follow us on Medium for more data spotlights, and of course over on Twitter. As always, if you have an important dataset you’d like us to permanently archive for you (for free), just drop me an email at india@decentralisedpubliclibrary.com any time. I look forward to hearing from you!


India Raybould, Head of the DPL


Appendix

ASCII (RFC 1855)

Publisher: Vint Cerf

Date: 16th of October 1969

Permaweb link: https://arweave.net/7Hx-ROeJBs2iD28RBcpeLee3d0vrYSuPAW7zzrZExP8

Traditional web link: https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc20


File Transfer Protocol (RFC 959)

Publisher: Jon Postel and Joyce Reynolds, University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute (USC ISI)

Date: October 1985

Permaweb link: https://arweave.net/jCSWkO1LecUS7GFZjMIvl3vpjcRyB90etvryTWZhsRo

Traditional web link: https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc959


Internet Relay Chat Protocol (RFC 1459)

Publisher: Jarkko Oikarinen and Darren Reed

Date: May 1993

Permaweb link: https://arweave.net/5S7CJo5gdICFy4Z7YBbCJmZhDs2Pi2rzT6JU1buF-o8

Traditional web link: https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc1459


The Internet Gopher Protocol (RFC 1436)

Publisher: F. Anklesaria, M. McCahill, P. Lindner, D. Johnson, D. Torrey, B. Alberti of the University of Minnesota

Date: March 1993

Permaweb link: https://arweave.net/fv30itDKbsUi6JF_cQvKRe7cqgcNtjUJWTNmwZAXHJo

Traditional web link: https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc1436


Internet Protocol, Version 6 (IPv6) (RFC 2460)

Publisher: Network Working Group — S. Deering of Cisco, and R. Hinden of Nokia

Date: December 1998

Permaweb link: https://arweave.net/CTCFgop663CeSQ05lGuKsd6b2T50IQnwbjkhdNbh6e8

Traditional web link: https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc2460


The MD5 Message-Digest Algorithm (RFC 1321)

Publisher: R. Rivest, MIT Laboratory for Computer Science and RSA Data Security Inc.

Date: April 1992

Permaweb link: https://arweave.net/bbwDe4CNuC4PcsD3dt2FtsndauD0vnCaF7vGcH9sBYo

Traditional web link: https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc1321


OpenPGP Message Format (RFC 4880)

Publisher: J. Callas — PGP Corporation, L. Donnerhacke — IKS GmbH, H. Finney — PGP Corporation, D. Shaw, R. Thayer

Date: November 2007

Permaweb link: https://arweave.net/6Wr5c199o5nM6PFvGfXNvHmreaSncRoLvjrtqE-LjGM

Traditional web link: https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc4880


Ethics and The Internet (RFC 1087)

Publisher: Internet Activities Board (IAB)

Date: January 1989

Permaweb link: https://arweave.net/nvI0ttZ6IOjsCT6K0GyCkvgJU508l-qNoSASfOtiDt8

Traditional web link: https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc1087


Nettiquette (RFC 1855)

Publisher: S. Hambridge of Intel Corp.

Date: October 1995

Permaweb link: https://arweave.net/1X08J04s3L6-rLPPzOErr3-Ca9cEV9Rd2nLvxPejSMY

Traditional web link: https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc1855


RFC 1

Publisher: Steve Crocker, UCLA

Date: 7th of April 1969

Permaweb link: https://arweave.net/tvkv9nHnSnP7t7RknUjKhBH464Oow-tJGFe66-G6b0E

Traditional web link: https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc1


30 Years of RFCs (RFC 2555)

Publisher: RFC Editor, et al. [Specifically listed as contributors are: Robert Braden, Joyce K. Reynolds, Steve Crocker, Vint Cerf, Jake Feinler, and Celeste Anderson]

Date: 7th of April 1999

Permaweb link: https://arweave.net/Bhip19Uf89mZuUHArDiTUrObDl7R-rx-hiLAFQm4n28

Traditional web link: https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc2555


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