Etymology of Agent and Proxy

Joseph M. Reagle Jr. (
Mon, 28 Sep 1998 20:29:07 -0400

Content-Type: text/plain; charset="us-ascii"


I'm working on a paper on Web agents and legal agency and wanted to research
some of the history of the terms' usage. Any comments, sources, corrections,
references are appreciated!

Content-Type: text/html; charset="us-ascii"
Content-Disposition: attachment; filename="etyomology-agency-proxy.html"

Research References

Research References

Given that the topic of this paper addresses both computer and legal agency, we believe an examination of the usage of the terms "agent" and "proxy" within each field is instructive. The technical use of the term agent can be characterized into three overlapping periods. During the earliest period (1970 onward) the term was used by the artificial intelligence community. During the same period, the community of Internet network designers used the term in a way similar to our own: a service that acted on the behalf of another. Finally, the 1990's has been the decade of the agents: where the concept of potentially intelligent, autonomous computer programs that interact with each other within a networked community is nearly ubiquitous. It was also during this latter period that the term proxy became widely used.

The technical concept of an agent was seminally used by the artificial intelligence community in the late 1960's. However, it did not relate to computer programs, but to linguistic analysis, particularly in Fillmore's case grammar [Fill]:

An agent is one who performs a particular action and this can be reflected in syntax. In English, in an active sentence, the agent is usually referred to by the subject.... A form used to indicate the agent is called 'agentive.' In case grammar, agentive or agent is one of the specified sets of cases. [recall]

Agents were the subject of papers on intelligent information sharing systems and artificial intelligence throughout the 70 and 80s'. Occasionally, IT related papers used the term as any other discipline would, such as"computers as an agent of change." [recall1]. Consequently, the use of the term to denote an initiator of action both within the AI/linguistic community and its typical English usage led the term to be used as a substitute of the term "program" when the connotation of autonomy and network interaction were required.

<networking> In the client-server model, the part of the system that performs information preparation and exchange on behalf of a client or server. Especially in the phrase "intelligent agent" it implies some kind of automatic process which can communicate with other agents to perform some collective task on behalf of one or more humans. [Free On-line Dictionary of Computing]

Interestingly, non-IT related fields, but those that shared the same theoretical grounding (network, queuing, and operations research theory) used the term in ways that foreshadowed its current diction. A 1976 paper [Chan] used the term (as well as spider!) in speaking of transportation and networks of roads. While agents were the subjects of papers for nearly two decades, it was in the 1990's that the term became worthy of appearing in the title. Perhaps this was because such research now had cohesive venues for research and discussion. [EWMA] [CIKM]

One of the best sources of information on how the terms agents and proxies came to be used in the context of the Internet and Web is the IETF's Request for Comments (RFC) archive. While the first occurrence of agent in an RFC was administrative, [RFC95] its technical debut was instructive in its use with respect to qualifying an agent as a program that resides on and communicates with other programs on a network.

The above premise is that the program (or agent) is doing the communicating with an NCP and thus needs to be identified for message traffic routing from an NCP.  [RFC129]

During the 70's, the only other time agent was used in a technical sense was to refer to refer to the sender of an email. [RFC733] However, in 1980, with the arrival of the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) [RFC761, RFC793] its usage was firmly established as a keyword in protocol and data format vernacular.

By 1987, the Internet TCP/IP protocol had matured sufficiently that the larger issue of network architecture and management became a focus of work at the IETF. Three critical RFCs related to this work include:

A concept integral to proxy was that of a gateway. Gateways often provide an interface between two networks -- each of which may use a different networking protocol. A proxy is able to act as a go between, representing requests or services on behalf of one party in terms the second party can understand. Both of our terms, agent and proxy, received their fullest treatment in 1989 in RFC 1095. Proxy is explicitly placed in a legal context.

3.1. Architectural Overview

The basic concepts underlying OSI network management are quite simple [16]. There reside application processes called "managers" on managing systems (or management stations). There reside application processes called "agents" on managed systems (or network elements being managed). Network management occurs when managers and agents conspire (via protocols and a shared conceptual schema) to exchange monitoring and control information useful to the management of a network and its components. The terms "manager" and "agent" are also used in a loose and popular sense to refer to the managing and managed system, respectively.... The terms "manager" and "agent" are used to denote the asymmetric relationship between management application processes in which the manager plays the superior role and the agent plays the subordinate.

4.3. Proxy Management

Proxy is a term that originated in the legal community to indicate an entity empowered to perform actions on behalf of another. In our context, a proxy is a manager empowered to perform actions on behalf of another manager. This may be necessary because the manager cannot communicate directly with the managed devices either for security or other administrative reasons or because of incompatible communication mechanisms or protocols. In either case, the proxy assumes the agent role with respect to the requesting manager and the manager role with respect to the managed device.

Subsequently, the terms agents and proxy have become integral to the nomenclature of networks and their applications. This includes email [ref], ftp [ref], the Web [HTTP], and firewalls [ref]. The MIT Media Lab has popularized and extended though on software agents [Maes], and others -- beyond the authors of this paper -- have begin to think about the social implications of autonomous network agents in a legal context [Fried1-3, Niss]


[Maes] Maes, P. Agents that Reduce Work and Information Overload. MIT Media Lab.

[Fried1] Friedman, B., & Millett, L. (1995, May). "It's the computer's fault" -- Reasoning about computers as moral agents. Conference companion of the conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, CHI '95 (pp. 226- 227). New York: Association for Computing Machinery.

[Fried2] Bias in computer systems ; Batya Friedman , and Helen Nissenbaum ; ACM Trans. Inf. Syst. 14, 3 (Jul. 1996), Pages 330 - 347

[Fried3] Software agents and user autonomy; Batya Friedman , and Helen Nissenbaum ; Autonomous agents , 1997, Pages 466 - 469

[Niss] Computing and accountability ; Helen Nissenbaum ; Commun. ACM 37, 1 (Jan. 1994), Pages 72 - 80

[Chan] Chan Y. A method to simplify network representation in transportation planning. Source Transportation Research, vol.10, no.3, June 1976, pp.179-91. UK.

[Fill] Fillmore, C.J. (1968) The Case for Case. In: Bach, E. and Harms, R. (eds.) Universals in Linguistic Theory. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, New York, pp. 1-90.

[recall] Dictionary of Artificial Intelligence. At Barker Library.

[recall1] what were those papers?

[EWMA] European Workshop on Modeling Autonomous Agents in a Multi-Agent World (7th : 1996 : Eindhoven, Netherlands)

[CIKM] Third International Conference on Information and Knowledge Management (CIKM'94)

1. One who (or that which) acts or exerts power, as distinguished from the patient, and also from the instrument.
He who operates in a particular direction, who produces an effect. Of things: The efficient cause.
1. The agency of one who acts by appointment instead of another; the action of a substitute or deputy.
3. a. A person appointed or authorized to act instead of another; an attorney, substitute, representative, agent.
Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press.

Chan Y. A method to simplify network representation in transportation planning. Source Transportation Research, vol.10, no.3, June 1976, pp.179-91. UK.

The problem of network aggregation is defined as the simplification of the number of nodes and links in a transportation network. The objective of a network aggregation technique is to reproduce the level-of-service attributes (such as travel time) between any two points using a spider network as a proxy for the detailed. The aggregation procedure categorizes links into functional groups such as access, egress, line-haul, by-pass and intrazonal circulation-which is a convenient classification in terms of transportation analysis. The technique presented has several distinguishing advantages. Certain invariance properties are maintained-for example the total trip miles of travel is the same whether measured in the aggregate or detailed networks. (15 References).

Check this with

Other Areas/Sources

September 18, 1998. Reagle 
Revised: September 18, 1998.

Content-Type: text/plain; charset="us-ascii"

Joseph Reagle E0 D5 B2 05 B6 12 DA 65 BE 4D E3 C1 6A 66 25 4E
Resident Fellow Berkman Center, Harvard Law School