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Network Working Group                                          M. Knodel
Internet-Draft                         Center for Democracy & Technology
Intended status: Informational                              N. ten Oever
Expires: 13 August 2022                          University of Amsterdam
                                                         9 February 2022

  Terminology, Power, and Exclusionary Language in Internet-Drafts and


   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

   This document represents the opinion of the authors and does not have
   IETF consensus.

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 https://datatracker.ietf.org/drafts/current/.

   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 13 August 2022.

Copyright Notice

   Copyright (c) 2022 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 (https://trustee.ietf.org/
   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  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   5
     2.2.  Blacklist-Whitelist . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   6
     2.3.  Other Considerations  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   7
   3.  Summary of Recommendations  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   8
   4.  Further Reading . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   9
   5.  Security Considerations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  10
   6.  IANA Considerations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  10
   7.  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-Ds), 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 care in the choice of language just as
   care is taken in defining standards and protocols themselves.

   The point of the piece is to lift up the voices of those who choose
   not to engage because of harmful dynamics such as exclusionary

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   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 are "master-slave" and "whitelist-
   blacklist".  There is a section on additional considerations and
   general action points to address future RFCs and I-Ds.  Lastly, a
   summary of recommendations is presented.

2.  Terminology and Power in Internet-Drafts and RFCs

   This analysis is presented as the authors' commentary on the IETF
   process and does not represent the opinion of the IETF.

   According to the work of 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, 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].

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   The role of language is to describe the world and maintain social
   relationships.  The way in which the world, people, and institutions
   are described provides a particular ordering to the world.  This
   ordering function of language is what makes it a potential instrument
   for power and control.  The understanding of power in relation to
   language, as used in this document, is the way in which language
   reflects, influences, and shapes social relations.

   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 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 remedy
   issues with respect to exclusionary language and metaphors:

   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 wider
       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.

   3.  At the time of writing, the digital technology community has a
       problem with monoculture [RFC7704] [Cath].  And because the lack
       of diversity of the technical community is a problem, a key
       strategy to breaking monoculture is to ensure that technical
       documentation is addressed to a wider audience and more readers.

   4.  The technical community already includes members who take offense
       to these terms.  Eradicating the use of exclusionary terminology
       in technology 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 [Wired] [Seele].  RFCs and I-Ds are some of the
       primary technical specifications in the Internet and should
       follow this principle.

   This document does not try to prescribe terminology shifts for any
   and all language that could be deemed exclusionary.  Instead we
   illustrate an overall approach through the following two most
   eggregious examples of specific term pairs "master-slave" and "white-
   blacklist" and the rationale for the use of suggested alternatives.
   Suggested actions for handling additional considerations are
   presented in a subsequent section.

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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 their use (e.g.
   [NIST], [Python], [Drupal], [Github] and [Django] ).  The usage of
   'master' and '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 recognised that the terms 'master' and 'slave' are very
   value-laden and responded to multiple requests from users by offering
   an inoffensive alternative [ISC].

   In addition to being inappropriate, 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 they are
   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 "slavery"
   is not just a historic term: whereas freedom from slavery is a human-
   rights issue [UDHR], slavery continues to exist in the present day
   [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:

   1.  it is being used less frequently already in a variety of

   2.  it has perceived exclusionary effects,

   3.  concerned members of the technical community have requested that
       its use be ceased.

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   Eglash's research calls into question the accuracy of the master-
   slave metaphor.  To find alternatives to master-slave, one can look
   to many existing implementations of technology.  There are also many
   other relationships that can be used as metaphors.  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
   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.

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   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 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], [RFC9132], 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
   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 Author from using tired explanatory metaphors [Orwell].

   The unnecessary use of gendered pronouns is a sexist practise that is
   common but easy to spot and replace.  Without a neutral singular
   pronoun, "he" is assumed as the default singular pronoun when the

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   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.  Authors of RFCs need to be especially on their
   guard against all manner of metaphors that may carry unwanted

   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.

   There is harm in protracted discussion about the validity of the
   experience of IETF participants with exclusionary terminology because
   it invalidates this people's experiences.  Behavior that, some of
   which labeled IESG as racist and disrepectful and therefore removed
   [White1] [White2] surfaced in the community as a result of this
   larger debate among technologists pushed away participants and
   observers [Conger].  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 listed some 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.

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   The authors think that document authors should:

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

   *  Read and reflect upon the repository of exclusionary terminology
      maintained by the community [inclusiveterminology].

   *  As the IESG has recommended [IESG], follow the NIST guidance on
      the use of inclusive language in standards [NIST0].

   *  Reflect on their use of metaphors generally.

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

   *  Consult the RFC Editor Style Guide.

   The authors think that the RFC editor should:

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

   *  Consult the IETF community and other sources to build and maintain
      a style sheet that collects reconsidered terminology relevant to
      the IETF.

   *  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.  Further Reading

   For more information on this topic we suggest 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 https://doi.org/10.1177/1474022207084880

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

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5.  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.

   Changing terminology that is common in use can be leveraged as
   security risk because it may lead people to misunderstand what is
   being talked about.  It is therefore recommended that when language
   is changed because of the reasons described in this document, it
   should be documented as such.

6.  IANA Considerations

   This document has no actions for IANA.

7.  Informative References

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

   [RFC7704]  Crocker, D. and N. Clark, "An IETF with Much Diversity and
              Professional Conduct", RFC 7704, DOI 10.17487/RFC7704,
              November 2015, <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc7704>.

   [RFC8499]  Hoffman, P., Sullivan, A., and K. Fujiwara, "DNS
              Terminology", BCP 219, RFC 8499, DOI 10.17487/RFC8499,
              January 2019, <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc8499>.

   [RFC9132]  Boucadair, M., Ed., Shallow, J., and T. Reddy.K,
              "Distributed Denial-of-Service Open Threat Signaling
              (DOTS) Signal Channel Specification", RFC 9132,
              DOI 10.17487/RFC9132, September 2021,

   [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, <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc8783>.

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

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   [Burgest]  Burgest, David R., "Racism in Everyday Speech and Social
              Work Jargon.", Social Work, vol. 18, no. 4, 1973, pp.
              20-25 , 1973, <www.jstor.org/stable/23711113.>.

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

              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.

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   [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, <https://github.com/django/django/

              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,

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              IETF, "Inclusive terminology in IETF Documents", August
              2020, <https://github.com/ietf/terminology>.

   [Cath]     Corinne Cath, ., "The Technology We Choose to Create:
              Human Rights Advocacy in the Internet Engineering Task
              Force", Telecommunications Policy 45, no. 6 (July 1,
              2021): 102144. , 2021,

   [Wired]    Elizabeth Landau, . and Wired, "Tech Confronts Its Use of
              the Labels 'Master' and 'Slave'", 2020,

   [Seele]    Mike Seele, ., "Striking Out Racist Terminology in
              Engineering", 2020, <https://www.bu.edu/articles/2020/

   [Conger]   Kate Conger, . and New York Times, "'Master,' 'Slave' and
              the Fight Over Offensive Terms in Computing", 2021,

   [IESG]     Internet Engineering Steering Group, "IESG Statement on
              Inclusive Language", 2021,

   [NIST0]    National Institute of Standards and Technology, "Guidance
              for NIST Staff on Using Inclusive Language in Documentary
              Standards", 2021, <https://doi.org/10.6028/NIST.IR.8366>.

   [White1]   Les White, ., "TLS Preferred Pronouns", 2021,

   [White2]   Les White, ., "Intersectional Dots", 2021,

Authors' Addresses

   Mallory Knodel
   Center for Democracy & Technology

   Email: mknodel@cdt.org

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   Niels ten Oever
   University of Amsterdam

   Email: mail@nielstenoever.net

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