Freenode Debacle Prompts Staff Exodus, New Network

It’s no secret that Internet Relay Chat (IRC) has lost some of its appeal in recent years. These days there’s plenty of free chat platforms boasting slick web interfaces and smartphone push notifications, to say nothing of social networks like Facebook and Twitter. The ability to communicate with like minded individuals from all over the planet in real-time is now something we take for granted, so it’s little surprise that newer and flashier protocols and services have steadily eroded the IRC user base.

But there’s often a hidden cost to using these more modern communication protocols. A lack of operational transparency naturally leads to concerns over monitoring and censorship, which makes such services a poor match for the free and open source community. As such, many open projects have eschewed these newer and more popular services for IRC networks that were developed and maintained by the community itself. Among these, the best-known and most respected is Freenode. Originally started as a Linux support channel in 1995, Freenode grew to become the defacto communication and support tool for free and open source projects of all shapes and sizes, and by 2013 had officially become the largest and most active IRC network in the world.

Unfortunately, the incredible legacy of Freenode is now being jeopardized by what former staff members are describing as nothing short of a hostile takeover. Through a complex series of events which actually started several years ago, control of Freenode has been taken from the community and put into the hands of an enigmatic and wealthy entrepreneur who claims his ultimate goal is to revolutionize IRC and return it to the forefront of online communication. Here’s where it gets weird.

The Crown Prince of IRC

Andrew Lee’s story, at least the first half of it, is not unlike that of many young rising stars in the tech world. The Korean-American was born in Indiana and attended Purdue and the University at Buffalo before dropping out to try his luck with a number of startups. In 2010 he launched an anonymous VPN service called Private Internet Access that he later sold for $95.5 million, and worked on a Bitcoin price tracker that was eventually acquired by Mt. Gox.

During interviews from this time, Lee would credit IRC and the hacker subculture for nurturing him during his formative years as a minority growing up in middle America. Lee said that while he had to struggle with racism in the outside world, the anonymous meritocracy of IRC allowed him to learn and grow. This open and welcoming environment drew him deeper into the world of computers and is what ultimately put him on the path towards becoming a software developer.

While he’d already amassed more wealth and success than the average person could ever dream of, fortune would once again smile on Lee when it was discovered he was a relative of His Imperial Highness King Yi Seok, and officially named Crown Prince of Korea in a lavish 2018 affair.

Crown Prince Andrew Lee (center-left) during the 2018 Passing of the Sword ceremony.

Determined to use his fame and fortune to enact positive change, Lee penned an open letter to the IRC community detailing his plans to revive the 30+ year old protocol through an influx of funds and talent. This included not only sponsoring the development of open source IRCv3 servers that could support modern functionality such as persistent logging, away notifications, and the ability to edit sent messages, but through ambitious “IRC University” and “IRC Gaming” initiatives designed to pull in new users.

In the letter, Lee made it abundantly clear that he believed his fate to be intertwined with that of IRC’s, and that shepherding it through this next phase of its development was part of his destiny:

Today, I’m strong. Today, I’m confident. Today, I am social.
Today, I am patient. Today, I am accepting. Today, I have a cause.
This would not be the case, if yesterday, for me, was not IRC.

I will do unto others as I would like done to myself. IRC created me. And for this reason, I pledge to revive IRC.

For IRC users, this was an exciting and surreal turn of events. Like something out of a Graybeard’s fever dream, a handsome young prince with millions of dollars at his disposal had vowed fealty to an antiquated communications protocol held near and dear to their heart. Even if the chances were slim that IRC would make it back into the mainstream consciousness, assuming it was ever truly there in the first place, it seemed undeniable that this was a positive development for the tens of thousands of hackers that still swore by IRC.

Sleight of Hand

Unfortunately, according to several key members of the Freenode staff, Lee’s desire to bring IRC into the 21st century ended up taking a dark turn. It all started with his appointment as the Director of “Freenode Limited” in 2017, a holding company that was ostensibly formed to help funnel funds into the network and manage live conferences. At the time, it was explained to the rest of the staff that this company would have no involvement with the day-to-day operations of the IRC network itself.

But as time went on, Lee started to exert an undue amount of authority on the network. As chronicled in staffer Aaron Jones’s resignation letter, it started simply enough. First the logo for one of Lee’s other companies suddenly appeared in the header of Freenode’s official site, rather than being listed on the appropriate Acknowledgements page. Lee then demanded pages detailing the network’s staff and operational structure be deleted from the site, and created a #freenode-board channel on the network.

Eventually, he and his associates started to seek out and install new staff members on the authority of the so-called “Freenode Board”, an entity which until that at point in time, did not exist. It was around this point that one of these individuals, Shane “nirvana” Allen, attempted to bribe developer Ariadne Conill with the promise of a channel operator role if she would get behind Lee’s claim to Freenode.

During the confusion, Freenode’s head of staff Christel Dahlskjaer stepped down. It was further revealed that, through mechanisms which are not yet fully clear, she signed away ownership of the network itself to Freenode Limited. The staff, made up entirely of volunteers, maintains that Dahlskjaer should not have had the authority to relinquish ownership of the network to begin with. However after consultations with legal experts, the consensus seems to be that fighting the agreement in court would be far too costly; especially with the considerable funds and influence that Lee has at his disposal.

An Uncertain Future

At the time of this writing, several senior members of the Freenode staff have stepped down and published resignation letters that largely tell the same story: Andrew Lee, though a series of underhanded maneuvers, has effectively taken over the network and intends to reform it to fit his idealistic vision. The logic is sound enough: if Lee is to have any chance at “reviving” IRC with the sweeping changes he publicly outlined, having full control over the most active network in the world would certainly be a good way to get your foot in the door.

For the record, Lee has posted his own statement which naturally paints a very different story. Interestingly, while he denies the allegations made against him, he does agree that Freenode is currently in the throes of a hostile takeover. However by his account it’s Freenode’s head of projects and communities, who goes by the handle tomaw, that’s the actual perpetrator. In Lee’s version of events, he’s little more than a bystander that’s been begrudgingly dragged into a volatile situation, and he closes the letter by urging the staff to identify the true traitor among them for the good of Freenode.

Former staffers have launched Libera Chat.

Clearly, we haven’t heard the last of this story. In the meantime, former Freenode staffers have started a new IRC network they’re calling Libera Chat. Billed as a “next-generation IRC network for free and open source software projects and similarly-spirited collaborative endeavours”, Libera Chat hopes to continue where Freenode left off and become the new home for communities that value freedom, transparency, and privacy.

But it will likely take more than some drama at the top, however juicy it may be, to drive away more than a fraction of Freenode’s users. Without the benefit of experienced leadership, and in the face of potentially radical changes coming down the pike, the majority who remain behind are likely in for a bumpy ride. If the situation is truly past the point where all parties can come to an amicable agreement and reunify, it could be a loss to the entire open source community.

[Ed note: Or maybe everyone will just move over to Libera Chat. Non-random sampling: #vim and #reprap have officially moved, #archlinux is “letting the dust settle” — meanwhile freenode is still official, and #hackaday was already registered on Libera by the time I got there.]

66 thoughts on “Freenode Debacle Prompts Staff Exodus, New Network

      1. Easy to resolve it with client side solution such a anti-spam password (for example Qtox used it ) or dynamic text logical solution(not graphical like CAPTCHA) as well baked in protocol itself such as client limit consensus for DDoS protection + personal client limits and chat keys/password etc.
        But it’s not a problem, problem is there are already more than few dozen of distributed and decentralize protocol, so isn’t it easiest just to use them and fix small their problems, than create almost brand new protocol?
        IRC in current state really need to be at least federated with standard protocol, but do we really need it?

    1. It’s possible to run decentralized chat… But not maintain the illusion of a tech gold rush. Jabber/XMPP is such a decentralized chat network. Google chat used to use that and federation was possible.

      There is also the issue where the skilled people capable of building a network think they should be paid forever for doing it once. This brings in the sharks smelling fountains of money. Build a house, sell it and then you have to do it again to get paid again… But that isn’t the business model “we” seem to want.

      Even in the 1849 gold rush, very few got rich. Most grubbed hard for a pinch of dust every few weeks and barely made a living. But, the fantasy lives on… There GOLD in tech!

      1. Build a house, sell it and then you have to do it again to get paid again… But that isn’t the business model “we” seem to want.

        No. That’s why most build a house and rent it out to some desperate sucker.

        Did you somehow not know that?!?! This isn’t unique to tech. If you don’t have the money to buy or build it yourself you’ll pay in ads or rent. Tech, car, hotel, house, network, airbag, echo. It’s all the same. If they can make you rent rent do. Why wouldn’t they?

  1. The most benefits of IRC are in its simplicity and stability. If this newcomer starts to insert too much things in it, we end up with another cumbersome “forum software”, that is neither efficient nor fast to use.

    Most of the success of the new network lies on people moving to it ( I personally do not find the name attractive, but others may like it ). But they need to get the news out, or common people will just see that the good-old-irc is changing, maybe to something they find worse, and stop using it at all, without even knowing there are other servers that still work the way they are used to.

      1. I understand many people have to use it. As for it allowing one to be productive ( can it at lest be used only with the keyboard ? ) I still haven´t a formed opinion.

      2. i really don’t mean to turn this into an irc vs slack debate. my real belief is that there is a place for each, and if i had a reason to, i could definitely integrate slack into my life. i mean, i used AIM, of all things, for decades.

        but i have an anecdote.

        i briefly used slack under firefox running locally on my laptop, and my battery life went down by 30%. wow.

      3. Slack, started out as a hosted IRC for people who didn’t want to run their own. For all I know, it still is IRC under the hood… It used to allow federation too. The money people didn’t like that.

        So it’s slowly lost the thing that made it really attractive, and now it’s got a really nice paint job on top of IRC.

        And the money people are happy.

  2. Well done, presenting the two different perspectives. I’ve been surprised how many takes on this story just accept Lee as the stereotypical bad guy. I actually found Lee’s rundown of events fairly compelling, but the whole thing is still really murky.

    1. Whether Lee is the victim of circumstance or he created the circumstance and made other people his victims is irrelevant. What matters is that the people that actually run the network have been angered to the point where they quit in unison and started a new network.

      1. Yes, he just took over #reprap, redirecting users to ##reprap automatically, which the community doesn’t have control over anymore. There’s only 20 people in there, and the only thing people say to each other in there, is to go to Libera, so I’m not sure what their gameplan was, but it’s not working…

  3. Can’t say much about IRC at this point – haven’t used it in a long time.

    >These days there’s plenty of free chat platforms boasting slick web interfaces and smartphone push notifications, to say nothing of social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

    But I have something on that note: Can the hacker/nerd/IT/* community find a way to get Discord to stop watering down and abusing the term “server”?
    Everywhere you turn some game developer or community or whatever invites you to “join OUR Discord server” when in fact no one but Discord itself is running the servers (in the “cloud” or wherever) with full super user rights and all the data and so on.

  4. A 2 part rant and moan,
    1, naming stuff with libXX, Libera is not a term for free or anything similar, its the beginning of the service for the deceased at a christian funeral so they just named themselves ” the chat that is being laid to rest”. Stop butchering words to suit your needs.
    2, We need to figure out how to get the Innovators in tech to play nicer together and even with themselves, we all can see that they have their individual issues that usually end in drama and damage to projects but when people try to point out the oncoming breakdown they are usually shouted down for “reasons”. These things do usually sort themselves out in the end but there is long trail of damage that that is left behind. Cases in point – If you had told me a couple months ago that Leah Rowe would be coming out in support of RMS I would have politely suggested you get your meds checked, but hey it did happen and I’m glad, I support both of their work even and get dismayed every time I see them “going off the rails” for a bit.

    1. Interesting “rails” she has. Not sure why some feel the “paranoid” position is going to help their argument, but there it is. Yes everyone’s out to get Github, or Godot, or Freenode, etc, etc, etc. Boy who cried wolf one to many times comes to mind.

      1. And yet the products that they contribute to their niche of society are things that couldnt have been produced by groups of people who were all worried about fitting into societies norms, how many of the great artists of the past were also labeled crazy, how many of the top mathematicians were also schizophrenic or similar. If you want a crazy genius to do great things then you need to let them be crazy.

    2. Fancy. In Italian it just means “free”, declined in the female form. And guess what, Italian comes from Latin, like pretty much all of the Christian dogma. “Libera me Domine (de morte eterna)” means “Free me oh Lord (from eternal death). I think you will find out it means free as in freedom.

      1. And now I learned more then I understood before, thank you, now if I can just remember to do a bit of research on what I “know” before I speak in the future…

    3. Libera is Latin for free among a few other connected meanings. By the Christian funeral service reference, I’m assuming you mean the song “Libera me” reference to ‘deliver me’ (or free me) from death eternal (hell).

    4. Libera is the imperative of the Latin verb liberare ‘to free, to liberate’ The most familiar Latin usage is in the Lord’s Prayer: Sed libera nos a malo ‘But deliver us from evil / the Evil One’ (the Latin is ambiguous), which is likewise how it is used in the Mass for the Dead, where it is ‘from Hell’. However here it is probably not a prayer but is a rhetorical figure: ‘Free yourself from Imperial Korea’.

      1. Both can be right. It is a long-standing *nix tradition to come up with project names that are puns. Not only CAN “lib” mean both “library” and “liberate”, but it was quite likely intentional. “Libera” in one word means “free library”.

  5. ugh i hate everything about this. honestly, i don’t care who runs freenode.

    but the idea of innovation and mainstreaming of irc is obviously awful. irc has always been obscure, and that’s fine. i think the population on irc servers is actually about as large as its ever been, even though now it’s just a tiny fraction of computer users. it went from being the primary chat service used by the tiny minority of people who used networked computers to the minority chat service in a world where everyone uses networks. not actually a big change, if you ask me.

    nothing wrong with new things, it’s just that they aren’t old. i use irc because it’s old, it just works, i don’t have to configure bitlbee or whatever to get it in my client. it’s least common denominator. for 27 years now, it’s just been irc. i’ve had to go through a dozen generations of different aim/icq/jabber/discord/slack clients but irc is just irc. if you mess that up, it’s just another new thing. there are so many new things. i use new things too but irc isn’t new, and that’s its whole point.

    1. One big problem IRC has, always has had, is netsplits. One server drops out and suddenly half the people in a channel can’t communicate with the other half. What it needs is for every server to maintain a failover connection to one or more other servers so that when the primary link drops a failover is instantly brought up from keepalive maintenance to fully active.

  6. It wasn’t Mt. Gox. It was MTGOX “Magic The Gathering Online Exchange”, which stole a large mount of crypto from its members. I got into crypto not long after and joined a mining group that worked on a large number of currencies. They had it setup where all of them could be converted to BTC but members had to accumulate at least 0.1 BTC before it could be withdrawn. I didn’t quite make that amount before the people behind the group claimed they’d been “hacked”, then vanished.

  7. IRC hubs come and go. Freenode was king for a time, they may go, and all will go silent, for a time.
    The protocol will survive, older networks and newbies will fill the hole, with one or two to fill the void.

    Same news every 10 or 20 years. Don’t panic. Move along citizen.

  8. The regional reprap channels (#reprap.fr etc) are moving too.

    Oh, also #smoothieware and #smoothiedev are moving.

    Actually I’m in dozens of IRC channels for Open-Source projects, and the few ones I haven’t seen prepare to move (or actually move), are channels with less than 5 people where it’s hard to get a hold of somebody in less than a month :)

    1. Arch Linux took a couple days to come to the decision to move as well. They’re on Libera.chat now.

      Makes sense, b/c they are a big channel and the Libera ops are the previous Freenode ops — they’re experienced and good folks.

      Names changed, computers changed, but people stayed the same.

      1. Exactly. I think most projects are going to go “wherever the Freenode Volunteers are going”. They’ve been doing a great job for a couple decades, I think most us/our projects trust them to keep doing that moving forward, even if it’s in a different place.

    1. Yes, it’s true. I am the user of the Gentoo for more than 3 years, and I don’t like access to Andrew Lee. I am very sorry what he did. So far I didn’t use the IRC because I found the Council everywhere on discussion forums including Arch Linux. I can only thank Devs. for commissioning of Libera Chat and excellent work and patience of all.

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