Anyone who joined a video call during a pandemic may have a global volunteer organization called Internet Engineering Task Force to thank for making the technology work.
The team, which helped create the technical foundation of the Internet, designed the language that allows most videos to run smoothly online. It makes it possible for someone with a Gmail account to communicate with a Yahoo friend and shoppers to securely enter their credit card information on e-commerce sites.
Now, the organization is tackling an even tougher problem: removing computer engineering terms that evoke racist history, like “master” and “slave” and “whitelist. “And” black list “.
But what started as a serious proposal stalled as members of the task force debated the history of slavery and the prevalence of racism in technology. Anyway, a number of companies and technology organizations have gone ahead, increasing the likelihood that important technical terms will have different meanings to different people – a proposition that makes it difficult for one. Engineering circles need broad consensus for the technologies to work together.
While the war of terminology reflects the solicitude of racial issues in society, it is also a sign of a special organizational culture that relies on informal consensus to get things done. .
The Internet engineering task force avoids voting, and it often measures consensus by requiring groups of opposing engineers to give humility in meetings. The noises are then judged by volume and intensity. Strong humming, even from just a few people, can indicate strong disagreement, a sign that a consensus has yet to be reached.
The IETF has set rigorous standards for the Internet and for itself. Until 2016, it required documents in which its standards were published to be exactly 72 characters wide and 58 lines long, a format adapted from the era when programmers punch their codes into paper cards and feed them into early IBM computers.
“We have big battles with each other, but our aim is always to reach consensus,” said Vint Cerf, one of the founders of the task force and the vice president of Google. “I think the spirit of the IETF remains that, if we’re going to do anything, let’s try to do it in some way so we can have a unified expectation that everything will work. moving. “
The group consists of about 7,000 volunteers from around the world. It has two full-time employees, an executive and a spokesperson, whose work is largely financed by the dues and registration fees of dot-org internet domains. It can’t force giants like Amazon or Apple to follow its instructions, but tech companies often choose to do so because the IETF has created elegant solutions to technical problems.
Its standards come in heated debates about email lists and at face-to-face meetings. The group encourages participants to fight for what they believe is the best approach to a technical problem.
While screaming fights are not uncommon, the Internet Technical Task Force is also a place where young technologists break into the industry. Attending meetings is a common ritual, and engineers sometimes leverage the proposals of their task force into job offers 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 wondered: Yes Is it racist? Some of their databases are called “masters” and are surrounded by “slaves”, they receive information from the master and answer questions on their behalf, preventing them from being overwhelmed. Others have used “white list” and “black list” to filter content.
Mallory Knodel, chief technology officer at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a policy organization, wrote a proposal asking the task force to use more neutral language. Ms. Knodel and her proposal co-author, Niels ten Oever, is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam. They write “Block list” which will explain what a blacklist does and “primary” can replace “primary”.
On the email list, the response was dripping. Some supportive feedback. Others suggested the modification. And some have vehemently protested. One respondent wrote that Mrs. Knodel’s draft attempted to build a new “Truth Ministry”. Amidst the insults and accusations, many members declared that the battle had become too toxic and they would abandon the discussion.
The disapproval came as no surprise to Ms. Knodel, who proposed similar changes in 2018 without gaining traction. The tech community “is pretty rigid and doesn’t like these kinds of changes,” she said. “They don’t like conversations about community, behavior – the human side of things.”
In July, the steering group of the Internet Technical Task Force released a rare statement on the draft from Ms. Knodel and Mr. ten Oever. It said: “Monopoly language is harmful”.
A month later, two alternative proposals appeared. One comes from Keith Moore, a contributor to the IETF, who initially supported Ms. Knodel’s manuscript before creating his own manuscript. The language controversy can clog team work, he warns, and argues to minimize disruptions.
The other comes from Bron Gondwana, the chief executive officer of email company Fastmail, who says he was motivated by the acid controversy in the mailing list.
“I can see that there’s no way we can reach a happy consensus,” he said. “So I tried to thread the needle.”
Mr. Gondwana suggested that the team should follow the example of the technology industry and avoid terms that could distract technical advances.
Last month, the task force said it would form a new group to review the three drafts and decide how to proceed, and the members of the discussion seem to support Mr. Gondwana’s approach. Lars Eggert, the organization’s president and NetApp company’s chief network engineering, said he expects guidance on the terminology to be issued later this year.
The rest of the industry is not waiting. The programming community that maintains MySQL, a type of database software, has chosen “source” and “clone” to replace “main” and “slave”. GitHub, the Microsoft-owned code repository, chose “primary” instead of “primary”.
In July, Twitter also replaced some condition after Regynald Augustin, an engineer of the company, came across the word “slave” in Twitter’s code and advocated for the change.
But while the industry has abandoned the rejected terminology, there has been no consensus on which new word to use. Without guidance from the Internet Technical Task Force or other standards body engineers would make their own decisions. The World Wide Web Consortium, which sets the rules for the web, updated its style guide last summer to “strongly encourage” members to avoid terms like “master” and “slave. ”And IEEE, an organization that sets standards for chips and computer hardware, are considering a similar change.
Other tech workers are trying to solve the problem by setting up an information repository for ideas for changing languages. That effort, the Comprehensive Naming Initiative, aims to provide guidance to standards bodies and companies that want to change their terminology but don’t know where to start. The whole team has been working together on an open source software project, Kubernetes, just like IETF accepts contributions from volunteers. Like many others in the tech sector, it started a terminology debate last summer.
“We’ve seen this void,” said Priyanka Sharma, general manager of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, a nonprofit that manages Kubernetes. Ms. Sharma has worked with several other Kubernetes collaborators, including Stephen Augustus and Celeste Horgan, to create a review that suggests alternative words and guides everyone in the process of making changes without cause the system to crash. Several major technology companies, including IBM and Cisco, have signed up to follow the instructions.
Although the Internet Engineering Task Force is moving more slowly, Mr Eggert said they will eventually set up new instructions. But debate over the nature of racism – and whether the organization should consider it – continues on its mailing list.
During a traditional overthrow of April Fool’s Day in the group, several members submitted proposals mocking various efforts and promoting terminology change in technology. The two hoax proposals were deleted hours later because they were “racist and deeply disrespectful,” Mr Eggert wrote in an email to task force participants, while a third remained. .
“We build consensus the hard way, so to speak, but in the end consensus is often stronger because people feel their opinions are reflected,” says Eggert. . “I wish we could be faster, but on controversial topics like this, it’s better to be slower.”