By Kate Conger, The New York Times Company
Anyone who was on a video call during the pandemic likely has a global voluntary organization called the Internet Engineering Task Force to thank for making the technology work.
The group, which helped create the technical foundations of the Internet, designed the language that makes most videos work online without a hitch. It allowed a person with a Gmail account to communicate with a friend who uses Yahoo and shoppers to securely enter their credit card information on e-commerce sites.
Today, the organization is tackling an even more thorny problem: getting rid of computer engineering terms that evoke a racist history, such as “master”, “slave”, “white list” and “black list” .
But what started out as a serious proposal stalled as task force members debated the history of slavery and the prevalence of racism in tech. Some tech companies and organizations have moved ahead anyway, raising the possibility that important technical terms have different meanings to different people – a troubling proposition for an engineering world that needs broad agreement for that to happen. technologies work together.
While the struggle for terminology reflects the intransigence of racial issues in society, it is also indicative of a particular organizational culture that relies on informal consensus to get things done.
The Internet Engineering Task Force, or IETF, avoids voting and often measures consensus by asking opposing factions of engineers to hum during meetings. The buzzes are then rated by volume and ferocity. A vigorous buzz, even from just a few people, might indicate strong disagreement, a sign that consensus has not yet been reached.
The IETF has created rigorous standards for the Internet and itself. Until 2016, it required that the documents in which its standards are published be precisely 72 characters wide and 58 lines long, a format adapted from the days when programmers punched their code into paper cards and fed them in. in early IBM computers.
“We have big fights with each other, but our intention is always to reach a consensus,” said Vint Cerf, one of the founders of the task force and vice president of Google. “I think the spirit of the IETF is always that if we have to do something, let’s try to do it in a way so that we can have a uniform expectation that things will work out.. “
The group is made up of around 7,000 volunteers from all over the world. It has two full-time employees, an executive director and a spokesperson, and its work is primarily funded by membership dues and fees for dot-org internet domain registrations. He can’t force giants like Amazon and Apple to follow his advice, but tech companies often choose to do so because the IETF has created elegant solutions for engineering problems.
Its standards are hashed in heated debates on mailing lists and in face-to-face meetings. The group encourages participants to fight for what they believe is the best approach to a technical problem.
While it is not uncommon to shout matches, the IETF is also a place where young technologists are breaking into the industry. Attending meetings is a rite of passage, and engineers sometimes leverage their task force’s proposals into job postings from tech giants.
In June, against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter protests, engineers at 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, preventing them from being overwhelmed. Others have used “whitelists” and “blacklists” to filter content.
Mallory Knodel, chief technology officer at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a political organization, wrote a proposal suggesting the task force use more neutral language. Invoking slavery alienated would-be IETF volunteers, and the terms should be replaced with terms that more clearly describe what the technology was doing, argued Knodel and co-author of the proposal Niels ten Oever, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam. “Blocklist” would explain what a blacklist does, and “primary” could replace “master,” they wrote.
On a mailing list, the answers arrived. Some were in favor. Others suggested revisions. And some fiercely opposed it. One respondent wrote that Knodel’s project attempted to build a new “ministry of truth”. Amidst insults and accusations, many members announced that the battle had become too toxic and that they would drop the discussion.
The hindsight did not surprise Knodel, who had proposed similar changes in 2018 without gaining traction. The engineering community is “quite rigid and opposed to these kinds of changes,” she said. “They’re averse to conversations about community behavior, behavior – the human side of things.”
In July, the IETF Steering Group released a rare statement on Knodel and Ten Oever’s project. “The language of exclusion is harmful,” he said.
A month later, two alternative proposals emerged. One came from Keith Moore, an IETF contributor who initially supported Knodel’s project before creating his own. He cautioned that disputes over the language could hamper the group’s work and advocated minimizing disruption.
The other came from Bron Gondwana, CEO of courier company Fastmail, who said he was motivated by the acidic debate on the mailing list.
“I could see that there was no way to reach a happy consensus,” he said. “So I tried to thread the needle.”
Gondwana suggested the group should follow the lead of the tech industry and avoid terms that distract from technical advancements.
Last month, the working group said it would create a new group to review the three projects and decide on the way forward, and members involved in the discussion appeared to favor Gondwana’s approach. Lars Eggert, organization president and technical director of networking at NetApp, said he hopes terminology tips will be released by the end of the year.
The rest of the industry is not waiting. The programming community that manages MySQL, a type of database software, has chosen “source” and “replica” to replace “master” and “slave”. GitHub, the code repository owned by Microsoft, has opted for “main” instead of “master”.
In July, Twitter also replaced a number of terms after Regynald Augustin, the company’s engineer, stumbled upon the word “slave” in Twitter’s code and called for a change.
But as the industry ditches objectionable terms, there is no consensus on what new words to use. Without advice from the IETF or another standards body, engineers decide for themselves. The World Wide Web Consortium, which sets guidelines for the Web, updated its style guide last summer to “strongly encourage” members to avoid terms such as “master” and “slave,” and l ‘IEEE, an organization that sets standards for chips and other computer hardware, is weighing a similar shift.
Other technicians try to solve the problem by forming a clearinghouse of ideas on the change of language. This effort, the Inclusive Naming Initiative, aims to provide guidance to standards bodies and businesses who want to change their terminology but don’t know where to start. The group came together while working on Kubernetes, an open source software project that, like the IETF, accepts contributions from volunteers. Like many others in the tech field, he kicked off the terminology debate last summer.
“We saw this empty space,” said Priyanka Sharma, CEO of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, a nonprofit that manages Kubernetes. Sharma worked with several other Kubernetes contributors, including Stephen Augustus and Celeste Horgan, to create a column that suggests alternative words and guides people through the change process without causing systems to break down. Several large tech companies, including IBM and Cisco, have committed to following the guidelines.
Although the IETF is moving more slowly, Eggert said he would eventually establish new guidelines. But the debate over the nature of racism – and whether the organization should weigh in on the issue – continued on its mailing list.
In a subversion of an April Fool’s Day tradition within the group, several members submitted proposals mocking diversity efforts and the pressure to change terminology in technology. Two prank proposals were dropped hours later because they were “racist and deeply disrespectful,” Eggert wrote in an email to task force attendees, while a third remained in place.
“We build consensus the hard way, so to speak, but in the end the consensus is usually stronger because people feel their opinions have been reflected,” Eggert said. “I wish we could be faster, but on topics like this that are controversial, you better be slower.”