The IETF was set up in 1986; It was one of the institutions set up during those early days to act as a central standards and governance body for the internet. Most of the internet protocols regarding the world wide web, were a product of the consensus and governance process of the IETF.
Tm Wu and Jack Goldsmith in “Who controls the internet – Illusions of a borderless world”, in Chapter 2, Pg. 24 explore the idea behind governance and IETF as a ‘rough…working consensus among relevant experts…adopted voluntarily after long debate’.
In many ways the process of developing standards by the IETF was one of the first instances of an informal governance process for the internet. There is a great article by Paulina Borsook in Wired Magazine 1995 which goes back to what was the philosophy behind IETF. There is an interview which Berkman Center at Harvard University conducted with her in 2000, which can be read alongside for better context.
Why is this important now? Perhaps because there is now, more than ever before, an increasing need for an internet governance structure; It would serve us well to look back to the infancy of this very young medium to gain a better understanding of how to move ahead.