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Terminology, Power, and Inclusive Language in Internet-Drafts and RFCs

Document Type Active Internet-Draft (individual)
Authors Mallory Knodel , Niels ten Oever
Last updated 2023-03-12 (Latest revision 2023-01-18)
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Network Working Group                                          M. Knodel
Internet-Draft                         Center for Democracy & Technology
Intended status: Informational                              N. ten Oever
Expires: 22 July 2023                            University of Amsterdam
                                                         18 January 2023

 Terminology, Power, and Inclusive Language in Internet-Drafts and RFCs


   This document argues for more inclusive language conventions
   sometimes used by RFC authors and the RFC Production Centre in
   Internet-Drafts that are work in progress, and in new RFCs that may
   be published in any of the RFC series, in order to foster greater
   knowledge transfer and improve diversity of participation in the

   It is important to note that this is not standard, it does not
   represent IETF consensus, and should not be misconstrued as anything
   other than the authors' views.

Status of This Memo

   This Internet-Draft is submitted in full conformance with the
   provisions of BCP 78 and BCP 79.

   Internet-Drafts are working documents of the Internet Engineering
   Task Force (IETF).  Note that other groups may also distribute
   working documents as Internet-Drafts.  The list of current Internet-
   Drafts is at

   Internet-Drafts are draft documents valid for a maximum of six months
   and may be updated, replaced, or obsoleted by other documents at any
   time.  It is inappropriate to use Internet-Drafts as reference
   material or to cite them other than as "work in progress."

   This Internet-Draft will expire on 22 July 2023.

Copyright Notice

   Copyright (c) 2023 IETF Trust and the persons identified as the
   document authors.  All rights reserved.

   This document is subject to BCP 78 and the IETF Trust's Legal
   Provisions Relating to IETF Documents (
   license-info) in effect on the date of publication of this document.

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   Please review these documents carefully, as they describe your rights
   and restrictions with respect to this document.  Code Components
   extracted from this document must include Revised BSD License text as
   described in Section 4.e of the Trust Legal Provisions and are
   provided without warranty as described in the Revised BSD License.

Table of Contents

   1.  Introduction  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   2
   2.  Terminology and Power in Internet-Drafts and RFCs . . . . . .   3
     2.1.  Master-Slave  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   4
     2.2.  Blacklist-Whitelist . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   5
     2.3.  Other Considerations  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   6
   3.  Summary of Recommendations  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   8
   4.  Epilogue  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   9
   5.  Further reading . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   9
   6.  Security Considerations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  10
   7.  IANA Considerations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  10
   8.  Informative References  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  10
   Authors' Addresses  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  13

1.  Introduction

   According to [RFC7322], "The ultimate goal of the RFC publication
   process is to produce documents that are readable, clear, consistent,
   and reasonably uniform," and one function of the RFC Editor is to
   "[c]orrect larger content/clarity issues; flag any unclear passages
   for author review."  Documents that are published as RFCs are first
   worked on as Internet-Drafts.

   Given the importance of communication between people developing RFCs,
   Internet-Drafts (I-D's), and related documents, it is worth
   considering the effects of terminology that has been identified as
   exclusionary.  This document argues that certain obviously
   exclusionary terms should be avoided and replaced with alternatives.
   We propose nothing more than additional care in the choice of
   language just as care is taken in defining standards and protocols

   This document presents arguments for why exclusionary terms should be
   avoided in Internet-Drafts and RFCs and as an exercise describes the
   problems introduced by some specific terms and why their proposed
   alternatives improve technical documentation.  The example terms
   discussed in this document include "master-slave" and "whitelist-
   blacklist".  There is a final section on additional considerations
   and general action points to address future RFCs and I-D's.  Lastly,
   a summary of recommendations is presented.

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2.  Terminology and Power in Internet-Drafts and RFCs

   According to the work of scholar Heather Brodie Graves from 1993,
   "one goal of the application of rhetorical theory in the technical
   communication classroom is to assess the appropriateness of
   particular terms and to evaluate whether these terms will facilitate
   or hinder the readers' understanding of the technical material"
   [BrodieGravesGraves].  This implies that in order to effectively
   communicate the content of I-Ds and RFCs to all readers, it is
   important for authors to consider the kinds of terms or language
   conventions that may inadvertently get in the way of effective
   communication.  She continues, "complex and subtle configurations of
   sexist, racist, or ethnocentric language use in technical documents
   can derail or interfere with readers' ability and desire to
   comprehend and follow important information."

   Indeed, problems of language are problems of everyday speech.  Racist
   and sexist language is rampant and similarly counter-productive in
   other sectors, notably social work [Burgest].  The terms "master-
   slave," treated in detail below are present in other realms of
   technology, notably "automotive clutch and brake systems, clocks,
   flip-flop circuits, computer drives, and radio transmitters"

   However as noted in the research by Ron Eglash, this seemingly
   entrenched technical terminology is relatively recent.  It is not too
   late for these terms to be replaced with alternative metaphors that
   are more accurate, clearer, less distracting, and that do not offend
   their readers.  Language matters and metaphors matter.  Indeed,
   metaphors can be incredibly useful devices to make more human the
   complex technical concepts presented in RFCs.  Metaphors should not
   be avoided, but rather taken seriously.  Renowned linguist George
   Lakoff argued in 1980 that the ubiquitous use of metaphors in our
   everyday speech indicates a fundamental instinct to "structure our
   most basic understandings of experience" [Lakoff].  Metaphors
   structure relationships, and they frame possibilities and
   impossibilities [Wyatt].

   Like Graves, this document recognises the monumental challenge of
   addressing linguistics and power, and attempts to "promote awareness
   that may lead to eventual wide-spread change" [BrodieGravesGraves]
   and suggests first steps for actions that may remedy the inadvertent
   use of undesirable terms'.  To that end, the list below is a tersely
   written set of IETF-specific arguments as to why the RFC Editor
   should be encouraged to correct other content and clarity issues with
   respect to exclusionary language and metaphors:

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   1.  The RFC series is intended to remain online in perpetuity.
       Societal attitudes to offensive and exclusionary language shift
       over time in the direction of more empathy, not less.

   2.  That exclusionary terms in RFCs 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,

   3.  At the time of this drafting, the digital technology community
       has a problem with monoculture.  And because the diversity of the
       technical community is already a problem, a key strategy to
       breaking monoculture is to ensure that technical documentation is
       addressed to a wider audience and greater multiplicity of

   4.  And yet the technical community already includes members who take
       offense to these terms.  Eradicating the use of exclusionary
       terminology in official RFCs recognises the presence of and
       acknowledges the requests from black and brown engineers and from
       women and gender-non-conforming engineers to avoid the use of
       exclusionary terminology.

   This document does not try to prescribe terminology shifts for any
   and all language that could be deemed exclusionary.  Instead what
   follow are two examples of specific alternative suggestions to
   "master-slave" and "white-blacklist" and the rationale for the use of
   the alternatives.  Suggested actions for handling additional
   considerations are presented in a subsequent section.

2.1.  Master-Slave

   Master-slave is an offensive and exclusionary metaphor that will and
   should never become fully detached from history.  Aside from being
   unprofessional and exclusionary it stifled the participation of
   students whom Eglash interviewed for his research.  He asks: "If the
   master-slave metaphor affected these tough-minded engineers who had
   the gumption to make it through a technical career back in the days
   when they may have been the only black persons in their classes, what
   impact might it have on black students who are debating whether or
   not to enter science and technology careers at all?"  [Eglash]

   Aside from the arguably most important reason outlined above, these
   terms are becoming less used and therefore increasingly less
   compatible as more communities move away from its use (eg [NIST],
   [Python], [Drupal], [Github] and [Django].  The usage of 'master' and

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   'slave' in hardware and software has been halted by the Los Angeles
   County Office of Affirmative Action, the Django community, the Python
   community and several other programming languages.  This was done
   because the language is offensive and hurts people in the community
   [Django2].  Root operator Internet Systems Consortium also stopped
   using the terms [ISC].

   In addition to being inappropriate and arcane, the master-slave
   metaphor is both technically and historically inaccurate.  For
   instance, in DNS the 'slave' is able to refuse zone transfers on the
   ground that it is malformed.  The metaphor is incorrect historically
   given the most recent centuries during which "the role of the master
   was to abdicate and the role of the slave was to revolt"
   [McClelland].  Yet in another sense slavery is also not 'just an
   historic term', whereas freedom from slavery is a human-rights issue
   [UDHR], it continues to exist in the present [Wikipedia].
   Furthermore, this term set wasn't revived until recently, after WWII,
   and after many of the technologies that adopted it were already in
   use with different terminology [Eglash].

   Ultimately master-slave is a poor choice since it is 1) being used
   less frequently already 2) in a variety of applications 3) to correct
   perceived exclusionary effects 4) at the request of concerned members
   of the technical community.

   To find alternatives to master-slave, one can look to myriad existing
   implementations.  There are also many other relationships that can be
   used as metaphors, Eglash's research calls into question the accuracy
   of the master-slave metaphor.  An alternative should be chosen based
   on the pairing that is most clear in context:

   *  Primary-secondary based on authority.  See for example [RFC8499].

   *  Primary-replica based originality.

   *  Active-standby based on state.

   *  Writer-reader based on function.

2.2.  Blacklist-Whitelist

   The metaphorical use of white-black to connote good-evil is
   exclusive.  While master-slave might seem like a more egregious
   example of racism, white-black is arguably worse because it is more
   pervasive and therefore more insidious.  While recent headlines have
   decried the technical community's use of master-slave, there is far
   less discussion about white-black despite its importance.  There is
   even a name for this pervasive language pitfall: the association of

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   white with good and black with evil is known as the "bad is black
   effect" [Grewal].

   Indeed, there is an entire book on the subject, written by renowned
   authority on race, Frantz Fanon.  In his book "Black Skin, White
   Masks," Fanon makes several persuasive arguments that standard
   language encodes subconscious in-group, out-group preferences

   In the case of blacklist-whitelist in the technical documentation of
   I-Ds and RFCs, it is entirely a term of art and an arbitrary
   metaphorical construct with no technical merit.  There are scientific
   uses of black that are related to light- black holes are black
   because light cannot escape them.  Blacklist-whitelist is not a
   metaphor for lightness or darkness, it is a good-evil metaphor and
   therefore this trope has significant impact on how people are seen
   and treated.  As we've seen with metaphors, its use is pervasive and,
   though not necessarily conscious, perceptions do get promulgated
   through culture and repetition.

   As with master-slave, we save our technical argument for last,
   referencing and presenting first the reasons for the use of non-
   offensive, alternative terminology for the sake of our humanity.
   Indeed, our technical argument is incredibly succinct: Why use a
   metaphor when a direct description is both succinct and clear?  There
   can be absolutely no ambiguity if one uses the terms, as suggested
   below, allow-block rather than white-black.

   There are alternatives to this terminology set that vastly improve
   clarity because they are not even metaphors, they're descriptions.
   The alternatives proposed here say exactly what they mean.

   *  Accept-list and drop-list for threat signaling.  See for example
      [RFC8612], [RFC8782], and [RFC8783]).

   *  Blocklist-allowlist, deny-allow, exempt-allowlist or block-permit
      for permissions.

2.3.  Other Considerations

   As described in the preceding sections, the language used in
   technical documentation, like all written text, creates and
   reinforces expectations and stereotypes.  We propose nothing more
   than additional care in the choice of language just as care is taken
   in defining standards and protocols themselves.  The two examples
   provided above are not the only cases of exclusionary language to be
   avoided, and many more can be collected.  We use this section to
   broaden the context of other offensive and exclusionary terminologies

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   to encompass additional concerns, why spotting and eradicating
   problematic terminologies is a valid endeavour for authors and
   editors of technical documentation and how this might be

   There are many other metaphors present in technical documentation
   that are "terms of art" but that have no technical basis whatsoever.
   If any of these metaphors is offensive there is no excuse for its
   continued use.  A term like "man-in-the-middle" is not technically
   useful.  It is not a standard term, not as clear as its alternative
   "on-path attacker", and should therefore be avoided.  When presented
   with the opportunity to employ the use of metaphors or to
   unthinkingly repeat terms of art that connote gender or race, authors
   should simply find a better way to explain themselves.  A fun read on
   the politics of colloquial speech by George Orwell should dissuade
   any clever author from using tired explanatory metaphors [Orwell].

   Gendered pronouns and sexism are common place but easy to spot and
   replace.  Up until recently, strict English grammatists like Orwell
   decried the use of the neutral pronoun "they".  Without a neutral
   singular pronoun, "he" is assumed as the default singular pronoun
   when the gender of the person is unknown or ambiguous.  However, that
   has changed, and it is now widely accepted that "they" can be used as
   a neutral singular pronoun.  Since it is unlikely that all
   implementers and infrastructure operators are of any particular
   gender, "he" should never be used to refer to a person in I-Ds and
   RFCs.  An author who uses male examples sets male-ness as a standard.

   Besides race and gender, our world is full of metaphors rooted in
   oppression, ableism, and colonialism.  Militarised metaphors are also
   a pervasive problem in language, perhaps even more so in technical
   communities because of the historical and actual relationship between
   technology and war.

   While it is not our intention to be exhaustive we hope to have made a
   persuasive case for authors and editors to pay attention to the finer
   details of metaphor, and the ways power is replicated in technical
   documentation unless detailed attention is paid.  The example terms
   above "master-slave" and "blacklist-whitelist" are already less
   common.  If the IETF community has learned anything from the debate
   over the use of these terms, and this document, it is that language
   matters to us deeply as members of society and as engineers.  And
   because language, and society, change over time, we must approach
   future concerns with some degree of dispassion when the arguments
   presented in the first section can be clearly applied.

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   There is harm in protracted discussion that weighs the validity IETF
   participants' experiences with exclusionary terminology.  The IETF's
   own discussions of this draft and the issue of inclusive terminology
   resulted in the publication of several I-Ds that were characterized
   by the IESG as 'both racist and deeply disrespectful'
   [draft-les-white1] [draft-les-white2].  Furthermore, it led to the
   removal of messages of IETFs main mailinglist and mailinglist bans by
   the IETFs Sergeant at Arms because of an 'emerging pattern of abuse'
   BPia_XpZ8U9uHlBDTIU/).  The documents and discussions that were
   described by the IESG and Sergeant at Arms respectively as 'racist'
   and 'abusive' pushed away participants and observers, several
   sYAyAB4z_V71fYFhJ3Wc1_GoPic/) of
   H5hBAXkdAOJdY05Ne7FX0QtSzUs/) whom
   zZH0Llxep6IUo/) announced their unsubscribing on the IETFs main
   mailinglist.  This illustrates the need to, as Graves is cited above
   as saying, continue to raise awareness within our community for
   eventual, lasting change on the continued front of struggle against
   the racists amongst us.  Yet we recommend a living stylesheet, rather
   than repeated RFCs, be used as a mechanism for monitoring
   exclusionary language in IETF documents [inclusiveterminology].

   It is there that we welcome additional examples of terminology that
   might be avoided through more awareness and thoughtfulness.

3.  Summary of Recommendations

   To summarise, we have bulleted some very concrete action points that
   can be taken by editors, reviewers and authors, both present and
   future as they develop and publish Internet-Drafts and new RFCs.

   Authors can consider to:

   *  Replace the exclusionary terms "master-slave" and "blacklist-
      whitelist" with more accurate alternatives.

   *  Read and reflect upon the repository of exclusionary terminology

   *  Reflect on their use of metaphors generally.

   *  Consider changing existing exclusionary language in current
      (reference) implementations [socketwench].

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   *  Consult the RFC style sheet maintained by the RFC editor and the
      community that can be found at

   During the publication process, publishers (such as the RFC Editor)
   are advised to:

   *  Offer alternatives for exclusionary terminology as an important
      act of correcting larger editorial issues and clarifying technical
      concepts and

   *  Maintain the IETF repository that collects all terms that have
      been considered and indicate whether they are deemed acceptable,
      and if not what terms authors should consider instead.

   *  Suggest to authors that even when referencing other specifications
      that have not replaced offensive terminology, the authors could
      use another term in their document and include a note to say that
      they have used the new term as a replacement for the term used in
      the referenced document.

4.  Epilogue

   This document built a compendium of scholarship, activist campaigns,
   and the will of technologists who had pointed out general and
   specific issues with technical terms.  This sparked a significant
   discussion in the IETF.  Concretely the document's writing resulted
   in a statement by the IESG [Statement] on on Inclusive Language and
   its mainstreaming with the [in-solidarity-bot].  The authors chose to
   seek publication of this document as a historical marker of that
   discussion and as a contribution to social and restorative justice.

5.  Further reading

   Ford, Heather., Wajcman, Judy. 2017.  "'Anyone can edit', not
   everyone does: Wikipedia and the gender gap" Social Studies of
   Science.  ISSN 0306-3127

   Grant, Barbara M. 2008.  "Master--slave dialogues in humanities
   supervision" Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, Volume: 7
   issue: 1, page(s): 9-27

   Miller, Carolyn, R. 1979.  "A Humanistic Rationale for Technical
   Writing" College English, Vol. 40, No. 6, pp. 610-617

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6.  Security Considerations

   Security is dependent on a wide range of actors that are implementing
   technical documentation.  Therefore it is crucial that language is
   clear, and understood by all that need to implement this
   documentation.  Correct and inclusive language is therefore conducive
   for secure implementations of technical documentation.

7.  IANA Considerations

   This document has no actions for IANA.

8.  Informative References

   [RFC7322]  Flanagan, H. and S. Ginoza, "RFC Style Guide", RFC 7322,
              DOI 10.17487/RFC7322, September 2014,

   [RFC8499]  Hoffman, P., Sullivan, A., and K. Fujiwara, "DNS
              Terminology", BCP 219, RFC 8499, DOI 10.17487/RFC8499,
              January 2019, <>.

   [RFC8782]  Reddy.K, T., Ed., Boucadair, M., Ed., Patil, P.,
              Mortensen, A., and N. Teague, "Distributed Denial-of-
              Service Open Threat Signaling (DOTS) Signal Channel
              Specification", RFC 8782, DOI 10.17487/RFC8782, May 2020,

   [RFC8783]  Boucadair, M., Ed. and T. Reddy.K, Ed., "Distributed
              Denial-of-Service Open Threat Signaling (DOTS) Data
              Channel Specification", RFC 8783, DOI 10.17487/RFC8783,
              May 2020, <>.

   [RFC8612]  Mortensen, A., Reddy, T., and R. Moskowitz, "DDoS Open
              Threat Signaling (DOTS) Requirements", RFC 8612,
              DOI 10.17487/RFC8612, May 2019,

   [Burgest]  Burgest, David R., "“Racism in Everyday Speech and Social
              Work Jargon.”", Social Work, vol. 18, no. 4, 1973, pp.
              20-25 , 1973, <>.

   [Eglash]   Ron Eglash, ., "Broken Metaphor: The Master-Slave Analogy
              in Technical Literature.", Technology and Culture, vol. 48
              no. 2, 2007, pp. 360-369. , 2007,

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              Heather Brodie Graves, . and . Roger Graves, "Masters,
              slaves, and infant mortality: Language challenges for
              technical editing", Technical Communication Quarterly,
              7:4, 389-414 , 1998,

   [Wyatt]    Sally Wyatt, ., "Danger! Metaphors at Work in Economics,
              Geophysiology, and the Internet", Science, Technology, and
              Human Values, Volume: 29 issue: 2, page(s): 242-261 ,

   [Lakoff]   George Lakoff, . and . Mark Johnson, "Metaphors We Live
              By", U of Chicago P, 1980. , n.d..

   [Orwell]   George Orwell, ., "Politics and the English Language",

              McClelland, J., "We need better metaphors", 2011,

   [UDHR]     United Nations General Assembly, "The Universal
              Declaration of Human Rights", 1948,

   [Fanon]    Fanon, F., "Black skin, white masks", 1952.

   [Jansens]  Bart Jansens, ., "I don't believe in PC", 2008,

   [Python]   Daniel Oberhaus, ., "'master-slave' Terminology Was
              Removed from Python Programming Language", 2018,

   [Django]   fcurella, ., "#22667 replaced occurrences of master-slave
              terminology with leader/follower #2692", 2014,

   [Django2]  lynncyrin, ., "comment on #22667 replaced occurrences of
              master-slave terminology with leader/follower #2692",
              2014, <

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              Wikipedia, "Slavery in the 21st century", 2018,

   [Drupal]   Xano, ., "Replace 'master-slave' terminology with
              'primary/replica'", 2014,

   [Grewal]   Grewal, D., "The 'Bad Is Black' Effect", 2017,

              socketwench, ., "Even in tech, words matter", 2018,

   [ISC]      Internet Systems Consortium, ., "@ISCdotORG reply tweet",

   [Github]   Kevin Truong, . and VICE, "Github to Remove 'Master/Slave'
              Terminology From its Platform", June 2020,

   [NIST]     Eric Geller, . and Politico, "Agency to end use of
              technology terms such as 'master' and 'slave' over racist
              associations", June 2020,

              IETF, "Inclusive terminology in IETF Documents", August
              2020, <>.

              IESG, "IESG Statement on on Inclusive Language", May 2021,

              IETF, "Inclusive terminology in IETF Documents", August
              2020, <>.

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              Les White, . and IESG, "draft-les-white-intersectional-
              dots", 31 March 2021,

              Les White, . and IESG, "draft-les-white-tls-preferred-
              pronouns", 31 March 2021,

Authors' Addresses

   Mallory Knodel
   Center for Democracy & Technology

   Niels ten Oever
   University of Amsterdam

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