After staff revolt, Freenode management takes over hundreds of IRC channels for 'policy violations'

Gentoo and Raku call foul

Updated Following the Freenode schism last week that saw most of the IRC network's volunteer staff leave to form rival network Libera Chat, Freenode on Tuesday commandeered hundreds of channels used by various open source software projects and fiddled with their permissions.

"Today (2021-05-26) a large number of Gentoo channels have been hijacked by Freenode staff, including channels that were not yet migrated to Libera chat," the Gentoo Linux project said in an online post. "We cannot perceive this otherwise than as an open act of hostility and we have effectively left Freenode."

Various channels associated with programming language Raku were taken over, ostensibly for policy violations, and then restored under an altered set of permissions – Freenode granted itself ops (operator) status and stripped other accounts of the voice flag, which grants the ability to communicate on privileged ops channels. In other cases, accounts also had their mod powers removed ("de-opped").

The channel used by the Elixir programming language, which made a move to Libera Chat, was taken over in a similar manner. So too was Haskell's channel.

All told, it appears something like 700 channels have been seized and re-permissioned, supposedly because the channels mentioned Libera Chat in violation of Freenode's advertising policy.

Freenode users have reported that the Freenode channel topic now states, "Remember, we do not support spamming or advertising other networks in channels topics or in other forms."

Several days ago, Freenode modified its off-topic use policy forbidding "inappropriate advertising" to read, "Off topic channels are required to act in good faith in accordance to the Freenode community as a whole," and defined inappropriate advertising to include "unused channels for the purpose of polluting the channel list results."

Thus, it appears that Freenode has chosen to interpret its rules in a way that disallows the promotion of competing services, a stance similar to that articulated by Apple in its iOS App Store Review Guidelines.

"A little over an hour ago, a user or bot named 'Freenodecom' stormed into the Freenode channels for Gay Geeks that I have been a part of for over two decades," said Laurence Berland, a former Google engineer, via Twitter. "The topic was changed, the ownership of the channel was revoked."

Berland said that the takeover appears to have been triggered because chat topics mentioned that the channel was migrating to another IRC network.

"Is the goal to just completely destroy everything that ever made Freenode worthwhile?" he wrote. "This is heinous and wrong and I just don't get it."

Berland subsequently posted a screenshot of a Freenode chat involving "rasengan" – Andrew Lee, who acquired ownership of Freenode in 2017 and whose involvement with the network led to the staff departures.

According to this screenshot, Lee posted a global notice across Freenode stating, "In the recent policy enforcement, some channels were erroneously included. We greatly apologize for the inconvenience."

Berland expressed doubt that the mass channel takeover was a mistake and speculated the notice was issued as an attempt to walk-back the unpopular intervention.

Atheme, a developer of IRC platform software, has published an open letter decrying Freenode's actions.

"On May 25th, Andrew Lee conducted a channel takeover of unprecedented breadth on Freenode, assuming control of hundreds of channels, many of which were legitimately registered by FOSS and peer-directed organizations who had once used Freenode for their channels in order to erase the wishes of those who had since chose to move elsewhere," the company said in its post. "...The leaders and participants of the Atheme community are disappointed by this action."

Atheme expressed dissatisfaction with Lee and announced it would no longer collaborate with Freenode in the development of its software.

The Register asked Lee to comment but we've not heard back. On Tuesday, Lee published a post accusing Libera Chat backers of "destroy [Freenode] from the inside."

Libera Chat meanwhile celebrated its launch, claiming to have attracted 20,000 accounts in 10 days. ®

Updated to add

In an email sent to The Register shortly after this story was published, Andrew Lee lamented the “cancel culture mob who has actively infiltrated major FOSS projects” and said:

"As it relates to the channel takeovers, there is a deep culture on IRC that grooms a culture of people speaking without thinking. We saw it with former Freenode staffers who resigned from Freenode and later claimed they didn’t resign, but we also see it with all of the groups that closed their channels and forced their users to move to Libera. These channels had already closed and only after the users were forwarded to an off-topic channel because the primary channels were unmoderated, did they begin to complain - after the echo chamber network began. Frankly speaking, if I was in charge of any of these organizations, I’d revisit the decision of who is in charge of making decisions on what and how their brand is being represented on IRC.

"I understand the frustration these people feel after making decisions they regret, and if my being a target of their attack gives them purpose in life, I am very happy and honored to be able to give them such purpose. I don’t how all the damage and attack on me helps push their agenda though, because the battle I’m fighting isn’t about me – it’s about FOSS and the internet."

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