Will the real IRC please stand up? Freenode’s forest fire leaves ashes – and fresh growth

Success, disagreement, forking, success... it's the c-IRC-le of liiiiiiiiiife

Column IRC is the open secret of open software. IRC - internet Relay Chat - started in Finland in 1988 and quickly became the Internet’s first widespread real-time chat system.

It’s an old-school text-based system with the sort of commands and structure that 1980s infosec nerds preferred, so in the early 2000s most users moved off to shiny commercial alternatives. A hard core of people who run the internet and create open source remains. It’s the default open global network for open global people.

Many of those people - including the teams behind Ubuntu, Wikipedia, Gentoo, Django, Fedora and hundreds of other high- and low-profile open projects - were until a few days ago happily using an IRC system called Freenode.

Freenode started life in the early 1990s as a Linux support channel, then evolved into a distributed server system around the world, paid for by donations and run by volunteers in a democratic management structure. But legally, everything has to belong to someone or something, and ownership of something that grew organically over decades in the spirit of open sharing can be a bit hard to pin down.

You can read the full story - so far - here, but the gist is that a commercial entity called Freenode Limited was quietly created in 2017 and sold to one Andrew Lee, amid promises that whatever it was, it wasn’t the full Freenode system.

There then followed gag orders, staff changes and overnight coups, culminating in mass resignations of the volunteers, a forced take-over of control of 700-odd channels by the new management, and the wholesale migration of the user base to a new system, Libera Chat, run by the old staff.

Curioser and curioser

A single paragraph cannot do justice to the weirdness of recent events. Andrew Lee is a millionaire tech entrepreneur who founded Private Internet Access and flogged it off, was involved in Mt Gox, an early Bitcoin exchange that collapsed in obscure circumstances, and got himself anointed Crown Prince of the Imperial Throne of Korea, which counts for as much as you’d expect in a divided country run as a hardline dictatorship in the north and a liberal democratic republic in the south. But it makes for interesting business cards.

One of the weirdest aspects is what on earth Lee thought he was doing. He imposed new rules on Freenode amid various colourful ways to remodel the staff base for reasons unknown, then took huge exception to people setting up their alternative system, demoting or removing anyone who mentioned it as being in violation of terms of use.

Not being an actual monarch of an actual country, he couldn’t stop people deciding they wanted none of that nonsense and fleeing wholesale. As one developer put it: “I hope he enjoys his empty castle.”

Lee himself blames the “cancel culture mob who has actively infiltrated major FOSS projects,” a statement that currently defies analysis by the finest minds in linguistics. Perhaps he thought he could monetize Freenode’s user base, who are responsible for an awful lot of planetary IT, but if he did - boy, did his due diligence stink.

This story is highly entertaining, and although it has caused a number of people no small amount of distress, it is also highly instructive. Many of those uprooted from Freenode had been members for decades of the communities and sub-communities it has supported.

Many had put in uncounted hours of volunteer work, both technically and in community management, which are both highly skilled and demanding tasks. To have your home taken by force and your work seemingly appropriated in secret is horrible.

It's all about trust

There’s another way to look at this. The Freenode community - both volunteer staff and channel users - know and live the ideals of open, which have two modes: trust each other, or go away.

Their mutual trust was such that when the ethics of their organisation were imperilled, they could move as one to create and populate a new system. And because the system was built on an impeccable old-school open protocol, they could build and move in a very short time.

What if someone or something who looks after your data goes bad, technically or commercially? Do you and those around you have the ability, and the willingness, to roll with it, regroup and rebuild?

Freenode was never a set of servers; it was a complete working entity. And like a hermit crab whose old shell no longer suits, it has slipped swiftly into a new one and can carry on crabbing.

If you look at the history of IRC you will see this story again and again: success, disagreement, forking, success. The combination of belief in what you’re doing and open frameworks may not confer immortality - if IRC ever becomes irrelevant, it will quietly die - but they do impart evolutionary vigour that thrives in changing environments.

This is a game that everyone responsible for the technology of an organisation can and should play. What if someone or something who looks after your data goes bad, technically or commercially? Do you and those around you have the ability, and the willingness, to roll with it, regroup and rebuild?

You can look at this as an exercise in multi-platform resilience, in disaster recovery, in corporate governance, or even of company and personal ethics. If enough Freenode staff had taken Lee’s inducements, then Libera Chat and Freenode would have suffered, probably fatally. Yet everything of worth was saved.

If your team - and your organization - doesn’t have that sort of technical flexibility backed up by ethical strength, then it might not survive the challenges ahead. Nor, perhaps, should it. ®

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