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'Master,' 'Slave,' and the Fight Over Offensive Terms in Computing


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A robot hand gestures.

The Internet Engineering Task Force effort for getting rid of computer engineering terms that evoke racist history, like master and slave and whitelist and blacklist, appears to have stalled.

Credit: Sean Dong

Anyone who joined a video call during the pandemic probably has a global volunteer 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 allows most video to run smoothly online. It made it possible for someone with a Gmail account to communicate with a friend who uses Yahoo, and for shoppers to safely enter their credit card information on e-commerce sites.

Now the organization is tackling an even thornier issue: getting rid of computer engineering terms that evoke racist history, like "master" and "slave" and "whitelist" and "blacklist."

But what started as an earnest proposal has stalled as members of the task force have debated the history of slavery and the prevalence of racism in tech. Some companies and tech organizations have forged ahead anyway, raising the possibility that important technical terms will have different meanings to different people — a troubling proposition for an engineering world that needs broad agreement so technologies work together.

From The New York Times
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