GitHub to retire 'master' label to erase slavery connotations

GitHub office with GitHub logo over top
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GitHub is working on replacing the terminology of its default branch structure from ‘master’ to something more neutral, like ‘main’, in order to excise any perceived references to slavery.

The programming hub has become the latest company to examine the development terms it uses, with CEO Nat Friedman confirming on Twitter that the company is working on replacing the term ‘master’ where it appears on GitHub to something else.

This would in effect remove any connotations to the master/slave dynamic in efforts to be more racially sensitive. Friedman was responding to a Google engineer Una Kravets who called on the platform to follow her push. The implications would amount to replacing terms such as ‘master’ and ‘slave’ with alternative words like ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’.

The logic behind the proposal, Kravets outlined, was that ‘main’ is shorter than ‘master’, it’s easier to remember, and it’s a no-brainer “if it prevents even a single black person from feeling more isolated in tech community”.

The alleged murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter resurgence that was sparked in response has forced many companies to reassess their contribution to systemic racism, including organisations in the tech industry.

After IBM announced it would ‘sunset’ its AI-powered facial recognition technology, both AWS and Microsoft followed suit, announcing each would at least pause the deployment to police forces due to the documented racial biases found in the technology.

Google, meanwhile, plans to eliminate the subtle racism found in its code by moving away from the terms ‘blacklist’ and ‘whitelist’, with the Chromium team publishing guidance on how developers can write racially-neutral code.

Incidentally, Microsoft programmer, Scott Hanselman, last week published a blog echoing calls from the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) that the ‘master-slave’ terminology is inappropriate. He also demonstrated how developers could replace the terms in their projects without much hassle.

The movement to replace potentially racially insensitive terminology in computing and development has been alive for some time, with UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) agreeing to replace ‘blacklist’ and ‘whitelist’ in April. The shift to using terms such as ‘allow list’ and ‘deny list’ came into force before the Black Lives Matter protests sparked.

“It only makes sense if you equate white with 'good, permitted, safe' and black with 'bad, dangerous, forbidden',” explained the NCSC’s people-centred security team lead Emma W.

“There are some obvious problems with this. So in the name of helping to stamp out racism in cyber security, we will avoid this casually pejorative wording on our website in the future.

“You may not see why this matters. If you're not adversely affected by racial stereotyping yourself, then please count yourself lucky. For some of your colleagues (and potential future colleagues), this really is a change worth making.”

Many Twitter users responded to Friedman’s comments suggesting GitHub’s plans are “stupid”, “useless”, and a “waste of energy”. The IETF report, published in October 2018, suggested language used in computing perpetuates racial connotations inadvertently and contributes to the sense of systemic racism many may feel.

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

Keumars Afifi-Sabet is a writer and editor that specialises in public sector, cyber security, and cloud computing. He first joined ITPro as a staff writer in April 2018 and eventually became its Features Editor. Although a regular contributor to other tech sites in the past, these days you will find Keumars on LiveScience, where he runs its Technology section.