What is Freenode?

I’m sure that some of you don’t know what Freenode is. Let me explain. Freenode started at an IRC channel named #LinPeople in the 1990s.(IRC or Internet Relay Chat is a chat protocol that has been around since the late 1980s and was widely used by open-source groups.) Over time, the channel became Open Projects Network and because a separate IRC network. The name was later changed to Freenode. At it’s height, Freenode was one of the largest IRC networks on the web.

However, the popularity of IRC has fallen in recent years. It has been replaced by the likes of Twitter, Slack, and Element. There is still a good number of people using IRC, but not as many as there once was.

Under New Management

The original founder of Freenode, Rob Levin aka lilo, died in a traffic accident in 2006. The project was taken over by Christel Dahlskjaer. In 2017, Christel contacted Andrew Lee, founder of the Private Internet Access VPN, about the possibility of him acquiring the project.

Lee told The Register:

“I have been providing financial and infrastructural sponsorship, through one of my companies, to Freenode for the past 8 years. While it had been discussed previously, Christel reached out in 2017 asking if I would be willing to acquire the company and fund it more dramatically. Given the fact that I love IRC and have been supportive of Freenode for so many years, I obliged.”

In an open letter to the IRC community, Lee spoke of his plans to revive the aging protocol. This involved education through IRC University, IRC Gaming to attract new users, venture capital for new IRC project and more.

Trouble Arises

The volunteers who helped run Freenode didn’t agree with some of the changes that Lee was making. Many of them thought that Lee’s Freenode Limited would limited to taking care of legal and copyright isseus and not interfere with the day to day running of the project. Recently, he started trying to make changes.

There is a lot of confusion over what went on, but a turning point seemed to be when Lee demanded that the logo for one of his other companies, Shells, be placed on the top navigation bar. Some volunteers also appear to be unhappy with the fact that Christel sold the project to Lee in the first place.

Regarding the logos, Lee said:

“As I have been funding freenode since 2013, there has been a logo of one of my companies or a company I’m involved in on the website. In general, FOSS projects have historically struggled to obtain funding and often times simply showing sponsors on the website helps to alleviate this to some degree. This is no different here. Every company that has appeared on the freenode website has provided financial sponsorship or servers or both to freenode. I want to send a clear message to those who disagree – you’re not helping FOSS, and your behavior of ritual defamation is toxic at best. We want to encourage sponsors to help open source developers and communities to be sustainable, not the opposite.

According to Lee, the disagreements led to Tomaw, Freenode’s head of projects and communities, locking Lee out. “When I asked for access back, I was denied and suddenly a story that I was attempting a hostile takeover began to spread.”

Disagreements between the two parties escalated. As a result, a legion of Freenode volunteers have resigned their positions claiming that Lee was attempting a hostile takeover. Several of them say that Lee’s actions are ruining IRC. They went so far as to create their own IRC network named Libera.chat.

Some Things Don’t Add Up

Right now, it’s difficult to parse out all the nuances of what took place at Freenode. Hopefully, things will be come clear with time. That being said there some things that bother me about the language used by some individuals involved and the reporting on this story. I’d like to address them here.

Everything I’ve read both by the volunteers that resigned, and the open-source news seems to be a personal attack on Andrew Lee. Lee is referred to numerous times as a Korean or Korean prince. (Lee was made the crown prince of the Imperial Family of Korea in 2018, but since Korean has no monarchy it doesn’t really mean anything.)

I find this very disingenuous considering that Lee was born and raised in America. In fact in his note on IRC.com, he said, “As a minority growing up in the middle of America, racism was a thing, and it would be a lie if I said that I never shed a tear over this. In this turbulent world, where but few genes dictate our outer appearance, and chimpanzees share 99% of the same DNA as us, somehow, we’re only focused on what our eyes are seeing.” Ironically, one of the of former volunteers said that going forward, Freenode would not be a safe place for “marginalized communities”.

Very few news articles mentioned that Lee and his companies have donated money to open-source and free software groups. These include the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future, Internet Society, Open Rights Group, and others.

Many of the articles that I have read refer to the departing volunteers as staff. This gives the false impression that these people were paid for their work and were making a big sacrifice by leaving. Really, they are leaving one project for a similar more woke project.

Speaking of the new project, Libera.chat popped into existence seemingly the same day all the volunteers resigned. Something this complex would have taken time and effort to build. This has been in the works for some time and feels very orchestrated.

Final Thoughts

When I first encountered this story, I got mad at Andrew Lee for ruining one of the last IRC titans. But the more I read, the more my mind changed. When I read one volunteer referring to him as “Trumpian wannabe korean royalty bitcoins millionaire” I knew something was up.

This story and the way it’s being reported is another example of the politicization of tech. It used to be that tech was the place that you could get away from the crazy politics going on in the world. Unfortunately, that sanctuary is being infected too. To reflect that, a number of open-source project have fled from Freenode to prove their wokeness.

I’m not sure what the future will bring for Freenode or Libera. I wish that the future of tech (and open source in particular) looked brighter. Lee has a lot of place to advance IRC, including decentralization. I hope he gets a chance to make them a reality before the mob cancels him.

As Dr. Roy Schestowitz from TechRights, says “Stick with Freenode for now. There’s no reason to rush away; it’s not like data is being sold or anything like that.”