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Cybersecurity & Standards

Pushing Internet Standards Governing Body IETF to Tackle Discriminatory and Exclusionary Terminology

CDT has long been deeply involved in internet governance and internet standards issues, harkening back to our early days. The governing bodies and structures, including the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and others, make incredibly important technical decisions which, without exaggeration, impact every user around the world.

In 2018, I joined the University of Amsterdam’s Niels ten Oever in proposing a draft to the IETF calling for the IETF community to codify the elimination of the use of discriminatory and non-inclusive terminology. While we continue to examine and peel back systemic racial injustice in all corners of society, it is similarly necessary to ensure that the coding that underpins one of the most important and democratic technologies is free from historically racist or bigoted terms.

Our draft is meant to demonstrate why it is important to consider the kinds of terms or language conventions that may inadvertently get in the way of effective communication, including ones that harm or distract. Here’s a list, from our draft, of IETF-specific arguments as to why we must make these changes:

  • IETF publications are intended to remain online in perpetuity. Societal attitudes to offensive language shift over time in the direction of more empathy, not less.
  • That offensive terms are largely hidden from the larger public, or read only by engineers, is no excuse to ignore social-level reactions to the terms. If the terms would be a poor choice for user-facing application features, the terms should be avoided in technical documentation and specifications, too.
  • The digital technology community has a problem with monoculture. And because the diversity of the technical community is already a problem, one key strategy to breaking monoculture is to ensure that technical documentation is addressed to a wide audience and multiplicity of readers.
  • And yet the technical community already includes members who take offense to these terms. Eradicating the use of offensive terminology in publications, implementations, and our discussions recognises the presence of and acknowledges the requests from Black and Brown engineers and from women and gender non-conforming engineers to avoid their use.

Our draft was not written with the goal of acknowledging each and every discriminatory term at play. We specifically tackle two egregious examples, “Master-slave” and “Blacklist-whitelist,” but hope for this draft to be a larger call for more examination and better choices of metaphors in technical documentation going forward.

These terms not only are harmful, but they’re inaccurate and ill-fitting, depending on the context in which they are intended to be used. With so many corners of the technical community also making these changes, their continued use risks being incompatible. And they’re already outmoded.

Changing the words we use in a relatively niche technical community is, in the grand scheme of things, a small change. FIghting against racism, inequality, and injustice requires much bolder action in solidarity, and in all aspects of society – but each small change helps ensure that white supremacy has no quarter. I encourage the IETF to adopt and publish our draft, which would allow Niels and I, with IETF leadership, to go deeper into this work and commit to related inclusivity efforts within the IETF community. These updates are an important part of the growth, inclusion, and protection of human rights in internet standards.

Mallory co-chairs a research group within the Internet Research Task Force (IRTF) on human rights and protocol considerations, and welcomes anyone to reach out with their own work or additional ideas, as well as create issues or pull requests on GitHub / @mallory. Follow her on Twitter at @MalloryKnodel.