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IETF looks to remove racial language from computer coding terms

What’s happening? Volunteer organisation the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is debating whether to remove computer engineering terms that have racial overtones, while other technology firms have already taken action to this effect. Amid ongoing IETF discussions, the community surrounding MySQL changed “master” and “slave” to source and replica, while GitHub has swapped “master” for “main”. In July 2020, Twitter also edited terms after an engineer at the company found the word “slave” in Twitter’s code and advocated change. (New York Times)

Some background  As a group, IEFT is largely responsible for consolidating and standardising web-programming languages to allow the different parts of the internet to function together smoothly. Historically, its work has been focused on improving accessibility of the internet for all, and now, as the above article highlights, it’s shifted focus to discuss accessibility and inclusion of a different kind.

Coded language – This isn’t the first time discussion has been raised against the racialised terms used in computer engineering. In July last year, amid Black Lives Matter protests, many companies – like JPMorgan, for example – began reviewing the language used in their systems.

Some people felt that changing well-established language was splitting hairs and others felt it was a tokenistic effort which distracted from more important systemic change. Advocates for the removal of such language, however, have suggested that the language is so reflective of racial inequality that it continues to codify those backwards values into programmers’ work.

Caroline Karanja, founder of 26 Letters and Hack the Gap – both organisations which champion equality and inclusion in the tech industry – described encountering those terms during her own self-taught experience learning to code as “shocking”. Karanja specifically highlighted the dangers of allowing the terms like “master”, “slave”, “whitelist” and “blacklist” to exist for people who may not be aware of their historical significance. For example, for any non-English speakers learning to code, the concept of a “whitelist” being things allowed in and “blacklist” denoting things to keep out is a reflection of racism within US society, according to Karanja.

Blacks in Technology Executive Director Peter Beasley reported his experience last year, of racial language being “constant reminders” of racist structures that are still felt in society and the workplace.

At Twitter, the engineer who first flagged the terms in January 2020, Regynald Augustin, has since led the effort for more neutral and inclusive language, expanding the changes beyond racist language, to also review ableist, ageist or sexist terms such as “dummy value”, “man hours” and “grandfathered”.

Why does this matter? As Google cryptographer and Go developer Filippo Valsorda said in response to the discussion, “there are people who are hurt by them and who are made to feel unwelcome… that’s simply enough reason to replace them”.

Recent news and reports on the technology sector have shown a continued lack of diversity within workforces. Dice’s Equality In Tech report showed 57% of women in the industry experienced discrimination at work, and Black employees were the mostly likely to be discriminated against of all demographics. Women and people of colour were also shown to experience higher rates of burnout than their white and/or male colleagues.

Two researchers at Google were recently fired after voicing their concerns over the company’s handling of diversity issues and AI ethics.

Not a pretty picture  Technology has an inclusion problem. While it’s true that there are many other systems of racial inequality that supersede the industry-specific issue of programming language, as an industry, it has the power to make a change, not only for employees of colour but for any other minority working demographic that feels out of place in the historically white and male culture of the industry. The fact that IETF is looking towards change is a signal to others that this is an issue worth reviewing industry-wide.

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Sara Trett

Sustainability Editor

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