The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) develops and promotes Internet standards, cooperating closely with the W3C and ISO/IEC standard bodies and dealing in particular with standards of the TCP/IP and Internet protocol suite. It is an open standards organization, with no formal membership or membership requirements. All participants and leaders are volunteers, though their work is usually funded by their employers or sponsors; for instance, the current chairperson is funded by VeriSign and the U.S. government's National Security Agency.
The working groups are organized into areas by subject matter. Current areas include: 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 formally an activity under the umbrella of the Internet Society. 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.
The initial meetings were very small, with fewer than 35 people in attendance at each of the first five meetings. The peak attendance in the first 13 meetings was only 120 attendees. This occurred at the 12th meeting held in January 1989. These meetings have grown in both participation and scope a great deal since the early 1990s; it had a peak attendance of almost 3000 at the December 2000 IETF held in San Diego, CA. Attendance declined with industry restructuring in the early 2000s, and is currently around 1200.
During the early 1990s the IETF changed institutional form from an activity of the U.S. government to an independent, international activity associated with the Internet Society.
The IETF has at times been ascribed nearly magical abilities by the trade press, who assumed its mechanisms were responsible for the success of the Internet because it works on the Internet's core protocols. The reality that it is a group of engineers putting together specifications so that multiple vendors' products can operate across networks is considerably more mundane.
The details of its operations have changed considerably as it has grown, but the basic mechanism remains publication of draft specifications, review and independent testing by participants, and republication. Interoperability is the chief test for IETF specifications becoming standards. Most of its specifications are focused on single protocols rather than tightly-interlocked systems. This has allowed its 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 when volunteers lack the necessary expertise, or so large as to make consensus difficult. 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 which 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 mechanisms on how to improve have been slow.
Because the IETF does not have members (nor is it an organisation per se), the Internet Society provides the financial and legal framework for the activities of the IETF and its sister bodies (IAB, IRTF,...). Recently the IETF has set up an IETF Trust which manages the copyrighted materials produced by the IETF. 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.
IETF meetings vary greatly in where they are held. They have strived to hold the meetings near where most of the IETF volunteers are located. For a long time, the goal was 3 meetings a year, with 2 in North America and 1 in either Europe or Asia (alternating between them every other year). However, corporate sponsorship of the meetings is typically a more important factor and the schedule has not been kept strictly in order to decrease operational costs.
Before 1993, the IETF Chair was selected by the IAB.