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RE: Nomcom process realities of "confidentiality"

2008-03-19 11:13:04

        I think I disagree with you on several of the details
in your discussion without necessarily disagreeing with 
where you are going with it.

        First of all, I think that the realistic view of the
possibility of something leaking is enough to ensure that
people do not make things up when giving feedback.  The fact
that what a person says may eventually get back to the one
they said it about tends to make people stick to facts.

        That is useful.

        But the possibility needs to be very small.  However
important people may feel it is to verify what they hear,
it is not a good idea to turn everything you hear into some
sort of juicy gossip to be handed around like used needles.

        That is not only not useful, it leads to potentially
seriously disruptive emotional reactions to what may very 
well have been meant as consturctive criticism.

        In addition, I think that someone who cannot deal with
the possibility that they may hear things that they have to
either keep entirely to themselves, or exercise a very high
degree of discretion about, should be straight-forward about
that at some point before they are exposed to that kind of
information.  If that means they have to step down from a
liaison role, or some other role in the NomCom process, then
that is what they need to do.

        However, I think this is buried in your comments under 
what I think you're identifying as the "human factor" - and
it is true that the degree of discretion that applies is a
very hard fence to walk.  Never-the-less, some very simple
guide-lines do exist.  For example, consider the following:

        In a private NomCom discussion Sigfreed tells Signund
that she heard that the candidate Borg has a reputation for
being excessively stubborn.  Signund happens to know Borg
very well and they have been friends for many years.  The
possible choices for Signund range across (at least) the 
following possibilities -

a) ignore the comment because it is clearly already second
   hand information,
b) explore the comment further with Sigfreed to see if there
   is anything she knows from first hand,
c) accept the comment as one data point but otherwise keep 
   it to themselves,
d) check with a number of other people to see if they have 
   gotten a similar impression, but without referring to
   any specific source(s),
e) check with Borg to see if there is any reason why anyone
   might have gotten the impression that Borg is stubborn
   (again being careful not to offer names),
f) ask a few people where Sigfreed might have gotten such an
   impression about Borg,
g) tell Borg that Sigfreed is saying that Borg is a stubborn

        Assuming that we all have pretty much the same ideas
about what "confidentiality" means, I think it is fairly 
obvious that most people would agree that either a), b) or
c) would be correct behaviors, and that d) and (possibly)
e) might be okay under some circumstances but f) and g) are
definitely out of line.  I suspect that d) and e) are in the 
area in which leaking of confidential information is most
likely to occur.  Sure, it is possible that someone has
decided to ignore a more conventional meaning of the word 
confidential to suit a personal agenda.  Or it is possible
that they are operating with a different understanding of
what most people mean by "confidential."  But - for the 
most part - indiscretion in this context is a result of 
simply sharing more information than intended while trying 
to verify something we need to be certain about.

        On the whole, I think most people understand that is
something that can happen.  I also think that what people 
are really concerned about is that confidentiality is not
being observed as a convention, and as promised during the

        That must remain a legitimate concern.

        And the reason why that is the case is that it is 
necessary in getting honest and unambiguous feedback about
people that the people being asked _believe_ that they're
comments will be kep confidential.

Eric Gray
Principal Engineer

-----Original Message-----
From: ietf-bounces(_at_)ietf(_dot_)org 
[mailto:ietf-bounces(_at_)ietf(_dot_)org] On 
Behalf Of Dave Crocker
Sent: Wednesday, March 19, 2008 1:11 PM
To: IETF Discussion
Subject: Nomcom process realities of "confidentiality"


The current discussion about Nomcom activities has been sufficiently 
professional and constructive in tone to prompt me to raise a 
delicate point:

    Just how realistic is our belief in confidentiality for 
the process?

It will be trivial to turn my query into an unintended attack 
on personal 
integrity.  That's not what I intend and I hope it is not 
what anyone does. 
Indeed, I won't participate in any exchanges that are of that type.

My view is that any problems are with unrealistic 
expectations, rather than 
personal failings.  (Or rather, that personal failings occur 
in all of us and we 
need to make sure our institutional processes factor them in 

Assumptions about confidentiality are at the core of many 
surrounding the Nomcom process.  They restrict what 
information Nomcom gets and 
they restrict what information it gives. They also seem to 
introduce distortions 
in decision-making, as well as tensions.

That makes it worth ensuring that our expectations for 
confidentiality along the 
process match the reality.

For example,

    I was on a Nomcom that considered whether to renew 
someone and chose not to. 
  Input to Nomcom was extensive as was Nomcom's 
consideration.  The two Nomcom's 
I've been on included a wide range of equally-experienced and 
assertive IETF 
folk.  The affected person later communicated to me that they 
had been told that 
I directed the outcome.

    Someone within the committee talked to them about details 
of internal Nomcom 
discussions.  That they got the information seriously wrong 
merely underscores 
the danger of inaccurate assumptions about confidentiality.  
(Factor in whatever 
assessment might be made of my range of behaviors and one 
still has to be left 
with the view that the idea of my controlling any outcome of 
either Nomcom is 
simply silly.)

    Were things more open, the person might have had access 
to more than one 
channel of description and might have been able to get a more 
accurate sense of 
what took place.  Were things less open, then some sources of 
distortion might 
have been eliminated.

    To be clear, as a non-Nomcom community participant, I 
have at various other 
times interacted with Nomcom members who drew very, very 
strict lines around 
information they would (not) share with me.  Indeed my sense 
over the years is 
that everyone takes the requirement extremely seriously.  But 
taking the 
requirement seriously is different from never violating it.

    This was merely an example that I have first-hand knowledge about.

To have a realistic model of confidentiality, we need a 
realistic model of IETF 
social processes.

For example, many of the people in the IETF management pool 
are at least very 
close friends.  Liaisons are present during all Nomcom 
discussions.  The strain 
on a liaison who is party to highly critical discussions 
about a very close 
friend strikes me as excessive: It is not reasonable to 
expect them to maintain 
confidentiality. And I repeat that I am offering this merely 
as an example. And 
note that the challenge is not only present for liaisons.

Add to this the fact that a) we have no detailed rules for 
confidentiality but 
rather treat the word as having implicit-but-total effect on 
behavior, b) we 
have no enforcement powers over violations, and c) Nomcom 
members, IAB members, 
IESG members and ISOC members typically do not have any background in 
maintaining confidentialities of these types.

(On item c), if you think that there is no need for training 
or experience, 
please think again.  Organization personnel matters are 
peculiar processes.)

The concept of Nomcom was a creative solution to the 
challenge of making formal 
community decisions in the absence of formal community 
membership.  That said, 
the conduct of Nomcom processes tends towards pretty classic 
assessment, but with people typically lacking classic 
personnel training or 
experience.  Coupled with a lack of institutional 
specification for the 
construct or enforcement against "violations" and we are 
certain to get 
distorted processes.

I've been taught that any good security structure begins by 
limiting what needs 
to be secure and who security is expected from.

We ought to consider extremely carefully exactly what 
confidentialities are 
essential and exactly who needs to maintain them.

By way of example, I'll raise a question about Harald's 
proposal to make 
nominations for Nomcom consideration public but not who 
agrees to be considered. 
   In the current IETF and Nomcom reality, I've offered a +1 
for the proposal. 
This note does not change my support of it.  Rather, it's 
helped me to reflect 
on the larger issues.

In terms of overall process effectiveness and 
confidentiality, is the proposal 
realistic?  The idea behind the proposal's distinction is 
that keeping the exact 
set of interested nominees confidential will protect a 
nominee from, for 
example, concerns that a competing candidate who is already 
holding the position 
will find out.

Does anyone seriously believe that someone sitting within 
IETF management will 
not know who is running against them?  Please consider just 
how tightly-knit the 
IETF management community is.  (And again, that's not a 
complaint; it's a 
reality, and I don't see that it can, or maybe even should, change.)

In the face of sensitivities, it is convenient to seek to 
avoid them.  Invoking 
"confidentiality" can be the convenient mechanism for this 
convenient avoidance.

But convenience is not the same as utility.

Let me suggest that we at least discuss a model that begins 
by allowing 
everything to be open, and then imposes restrictions only 
when there is 
agreement on a compelling need for it, and that the 
restriction be defined on 
the smallest possible group of people.


   Dave Crocker
   Brandenburg InternetWorking
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