‘Master,’ ‘slave’ and the fight on aggressive terms in computing

Anyone involved in a video call during the epidemic likely has a global volunteer organization, thanks to the Internet Engineering Task Force for doing technology work.

The group, which helped build the Internet’s technical foundation, designed the language that allows most videos to be played online easily. This made it possible for a person with a Gmail account to communicate with a friend using Yahoo and for shoppers to securely enter their credit card information on e-commerce sites.

Now the organization is tackling an even more prickly issue: getting rid of computer engineering terms revealing the history of racism, such as “master” and “slave” and “whitelist” and “blacklist”.

But members of the Task Force, launched as an earnest proposal, have debated the prevalence of racism in the history and technology of slavery. Some companies and tech organizations have tilted forward anyway, raising the possibility that key technical terms will have different meanings for different people – a troubling proposition for an engineering world that needs broad agreement so that Technologies work together.

While the battle over terminology reflects the instability of racial issues in society, it is also indicative of a strange organizational culture that relies on informal consent to get things going.

The Internet Engineering Task Force evades voting, and it often measures consensus by asking engineers to oppose factions during meetings. The hummus is then evaluated by volume and speed. Loud humming, even from just a few people, may indicate strong disagreement, a sign that consensus has not yet been reached.

The IETF has created stricter standards for the Internet and for itself. As of 2016, it required documents in which its standards are published to be exactly 72 characters wide and 58 lines long, a format adapted from the era when programmers put their code into paper cards and they Early IBMs are fed into computers.

Vint Cerf, one of the founders of the task force and vice-president of Google, said, “We have big fights with each other, but we always intend to reach a consensus.” “I think the spirit of the IETF is still, if we’re going to do anything, let’s try to do it in a way so that we can have a similar expectation that things will work out

The group is made up of around 7,000 volunteers around the world. It has two full-time employees, an executive director and a spokesperson, whose work is primarily by completing the arrears and registration fees of dot-org internet domains. It may not force giants like Amazon or Apple to follow its guidance, but tech companies often choose to do so as IETF has designed elegant solutions to engineering problems.

Its standards have been fired during fierce debates in email lists and in-person meetings. The group encourages participants to fight for what they believe is the best approach to a technical problem.

While shouting matches are not uncommon, the Internet Engineering Task Force is also a place where young technologists enter the industry. Attending the meeting is a rite, and engineers sometimes have to take advantage of their work force proposals from tech giants in job offers.

In June, against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter protestsEngineers from social media platforms, coding groups and international standards bodies re-examined their code and asked themselves: Was it racist? Some of their databases were called “masters” and were surrounded by “slaves” who received information from the masters and answered questions on their behalf, which overwhelmed them. Others used “whitelist” and “blacklist” to filter the content.

The chief technology officer of the policy organization Center for Democracy and Technology, Mallory Knodel, has written a resolution stating that the task force uses more neutral language. Inviting slavery was alienating potential IETF volunteers, and the terms should be replaced with those that explicitly described what the technology was doing, Ms. Nodel and co-author of her proposal, Niels Ten Argued Ower, a postdoctoral researcher at the university. Amsterdam. “Blocklist” explains what a blacklist does, and “primary” can replace “master”, he wrote.

In an email list, responses were spoofed. Some were helpful. Others proposed amendments. And some were opposed. One defendant wrote that Ms. Knodel’s draft tried to create a new “ministry of truth”. Amidst the outrage and accusations, several members announced that the fight had become too toxic and they would leave the discussion.

The pushback did not surprise Ms. Nodel, who proposed similar changes in 2018 without gaining traction. The engineering community is “quite rigid and the opposite of these types of changes,” she said. “They are bound to have conversations about community mobilization, behavior – the human side of things.”

In July, the steering group of the Internet Engineering Task Force released a rare Statement Regarding the drafting of Ms. Knodel and Mr. Ten Hour. “Excluded language is harmful,” it said.

A month later, two alternative proposals appeared. One came from Keith Moore, an IETF contributor who initially supported Ms. Knodell’s draft before making her own. His warning stated that fighting over language could hamper group work and argued for reducing disruption.

The second email was Bron Gondwana, the chief executive of the company FastMail, who said he was inspired by the acid debate on the mailing list.

“I could see that there was no way we would reach a happy consensus”, he said. “That’s why I tried to thread the needle.”

Mr. Gondwana suggested that the group should follow the example of the technical industry and avoid words that would distract from technological progress.

Last month, the task force said it would form a new group to consider three drafts and decide how to proceed, and members involved in the discussion favor Mr Gondwana’s approach. Lars Eggert, president of the organization and technical director for networking at the company NetApp, said he expected guidance on terminology would be released by the end of the year.

The rest of the industry is not waiting. Programming community that maintains My sqlChosen “source” and “replication” as a replacement for “master” and “slave”, a type of database software. GitHubCode repository owned by Microsoft, selected for “master” instead of “master”.

In July, Twitter also took many places The case After Regynald Augustin, one of the company’s engineers came across the word “slave” in Twitter’s code and advocated change.

But when the industry drops objectionable words, there is no consensus about which new term to use. Without the guidance of the Internet Engineering Task Force or any other standards body, engineers make decisions on their own. The World Wide Web Consortium, which sets guidelines for the web, updated it Style guide Last summer, to “strongly encourage” members to avoid words like “master” and “slave”, and IEEE, an organization that sets standards for chips and other computing hardware, weighs a similar change. Has been doing.

Other technical staff are trying to solve the problem by creating a clearhouse for ideas about changing language. That effort, Inclusive naming initiative, Is intended to provide guidance to standards bodies and companies that wish to change their terminology, but do not know where to begin. The group got to work on Kubernetes, an open-source software project that accepts contributions from volunteers, like IETF. Like many others at Tech, it started a debate on terminology last summer.

Priyanka Sharma, general manager of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, said that a non-profit organization manages Kubernetes. Ms. Sharma worked with several other Kubernetes contributors, including Stephen Augustus and Celeste Horgan, to create a rubric that suggests alternative words and guides people through the process of making changes without breaking the system is. Several major tech companies, including IBM and Cisco, have signed on to follow the guidance.

Although the Internet Engineering Task Force is moving slowly, Mr. Eggert said it would eventually establish new guidelines. But the debate over the nature of racism – and whether the organization should weigh in on the matter – has continued on its mailing list.

In a subversion of an April Fools’ Day tradition within the group, several members submitted proposals to diversify efforts and insist on changing the terminology at Tech. The two prank proposals were dropped hours later because they were “racist and deeply abusive”, Mr. Eggert wrote in one E-mail To force the contestants, while a third remained up.

“We build the consensus the hard way, so to speak, but in the end the consensus is generally stronger because people think their opinions were reflected,” Mr Eggert said. “I wish we could be faster, but on such topics that are controversial, it is better to slow down.”

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