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.
Black Lives Matter protests, engineers at social media platforms, coding groups and international standards bodies re-examined their code and asked themselves: Was it racist? Some of their databases were called “masters” and were surrounded by “slaves,” which received information from the masters and answered queries on their behalf, preventing them from being overwhelmed. Others used “whitelists” and “blacklists” to filter content.
statement about the draft from Ms. Knodel and Mr. ten Oever. “Exclusionary language is harmful,” it said.
A month later, two alternative proposals emerged. One came from Keith Moore, an I.E.T.F. contributor who initially backed Ms. Knodel’s draft before creating his own. His cautioned that fighting over language could bottleneck the group’s work and argued for minimizing disruption.
The other came from Bron Gondwana, the chief executive of the email company Fastmail, who said he had been motivated by the acid debate on the mailing list.
“I could see that there was no way we would reach a happy consensus,” he said. “So I tried to thread the needle.”
Mr. Gondwana suggested that the group should follow the tech industry’s example and avoid terms that would distract from technical advances.
Last month, the task force said it would create a new group to consider the three drafts and decide how to proceed, and members involved in the discussion appeared to favor Mr. Gondwana’s approach. Lars Eggert, the organization’s chair and the technical director for networking at the company NetApp, said he hoped guidance on terminology would be issued by the end of the year.