The End of Freenode – the End of IRC?

Marvin Gülker · 19.06.2021

This article takes a look at the events surrounding Freenode and Libera.Chat in a wider context regarding IRC in general. It is proposed that even though there exists a lot of uncertainty at the moment, specifically the destructive behaviour of Freenode’s new operators could actually benefit IRC more than it damages it.

Kategorien: Messenger, Software

It was featured by all technical media: The Freenode IRC network broke down due to internal disagreements. Even the c’t IT magazine reported the event (c’t 13/2021, p. 51). One month later, this article tries to draft a wider perspective by first talking about IRC in general (I.) before it subsequently summarises the recent events around Freenode (II.) and finally draws conclusions with a scope wider than Freenode from them (III.).

About IRC in general

A rock in the wild sea

Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is an instant messaging chat protocol whose origins date back into the 80ies and is one of the few “old” communication protocols with European (more exactly: Finnish) rather than American roots. In 1993 the server/client protocol was standardised by the IETF as RFC 1459. IRC since then survived all and any chat services introduced later, both proprietary ones like ICQ and free ones like XMPP. Until now specifically the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) community was holding to IRC, even though it recently underwent attacks by optically improved proprietary services like Slack. It however is not unlikely that these proprietary services vanish as quickly as they appeared. It would not be the first time that IRC stands out as the rock in the wild sea. The comic drafter Monroe has summarised this in his unique mannor as can be seen in Fig. 1.

xkcd1782.png
Figure 1: Team Chat. © Randall Monroe, CC-BY-NC 2.5.

IRC has been resistant against not only proprietary, but also against free protocols. Jabber/XMPP never gained similar traction because it is enormously split into several extensions (XEPs) and the still new Matrix has been critised as a quasi-monopoly of the primary matrix.org server, since there are only few people willing to host the resource hungry Matrix server software. In addition, the lack of a formal protocol specification poses significant difficulties for the development of alternative clients other than the official Element (formerly Riot). Both IRC and XMPP on the other hand feature a multitude of different clients which serve any possible preference. In total, compared to IRC I expect Matrix to have a rather short life span due to its complexity.

IRC as a digital café

It is possible to find multiple reasons for IRC’s survival. One of them is its technical simplicity. The communication protocol used between server and client is simple enough to be implemented by nearly every programmer as a training exercise within a few days. From and end-user perspective, this might be an irrelevant advantage, but from a technical view it is the very base for an enduring interest in the protocol’s implementation. Platforms whose communication protocol is technically difficult to implement will necessaryly have a shortler life span compared to such with simple protocols. The situation is similar with regard to Gopher, which long has been removed from typical users’ experience, but which is still enjoyed by technical minimalists. With Gemini there exist efforts to moderately modernise the protocol, which have a parallel in the IRC world with IRCv3.

The technical base however cannot be the only reason for IRC’s persistance, since even technically well designed protocols are not guaranteed to be adopted; in fact, it is entirely valid to critise IRC to not be up to date anymore in several aspects. The answer lies within IRC’s specific use, that is, within the IRC networks. IRC is one the very few media of social communication that profits from the Network Effect, an effect which is normally used to draw users away from free communication media into closed silos. Specifically Freenode was longstandingly known to host a chat channel for nearly every FOSS project, often enough even the project’s official real time communication medium. Even after a sadly growing number of FOSS projects decided to withdraw their official channels from IRC in favour of silos such as Slack, there are usually enough enthusiasts to be found still to run an inofficial chat channel in IRC, something that until recently normally meant: on Freenode. As a result, it was often sufficient to try on Freenode the channal names #project and ##project in order to find a community related to the project in question. Freenode thus grew into a kind of digital café: one went there with the intention to talk about a specific project, because one knew there will be persons around who are related to it. More often than not – including in the author’s case – there grew friendships from these informal meetings which extended into real life. Outside the FOSS community, it might be similar for other IRC networks. Other platforms were not able to establish themselves in a similar way; often enough their development was up front focused on other use cases like communication under friends and relatives, or in extreme cases only one-to-one communication. IRC on the other hand was from the beginning designed for meeting unknown, but likeminded persons. This approach is even mirrored in the terminology used: one does not participate in “chat groups” or “group chats”, but instead in “chat channels” or even more plastically in “chat rooms”.

The Freenode events

There does not exist the one IRC network, but there is a great multitude of IRC networks. Over the years, things went silent around many of them, but those with focus on the FOSS area were still rather popular:

  • Freenode for long was the leading network in the FOSS area.
  • OFTC has been competition to Freenode nearly since its inception.
  • For GNOME projects GIMPNet has still some relevance.

This is not the place to recall Freenode’s entire history. Details can be found in Ariadne Conill’s blog. Focusing on the recent events, the following happened:

On May 19th, 2021, the entrepreneur and Korean crown prince Andrew Lee – he does not only call himself like that, it is indeed official, even though the Korean royal family has no political role anymore since Japan conquered Korea in 1910 and emperor Joseon abdicted – took over the domain freenode.net, causing a kind of mutiny among the IRC operators most of whom simultaneously resigned (Link with further references) from their position and founded the new IRC network Libera.Chat. The events leading up to this point are difficult to discover for persons not involved into the issue and have been correctly termed a “Schlammschlacht” by the c’t magazine in German (c’t 13/2021, p. 51), a term rather difficult to translate to English, but which captures the rather hostile attitude on both sides pretty well as far as I was able to conclude from the published IRC log snippets. The story is said to entail treason by a former IRC operator who held the domain freenode.net, violated child dreams, change of Freenode into a commercial company, hostile takeovers (something both sides accuse each other of), bribery and much more. Only those actually involved are able to shade light into the dark surrounding these events, but this is not something to be expected anytime soon. The publically available chat logs are noticable mostly for their insults and swear language and hence are not something worth to dive into in order to discover the truth. In this context it is relieving to read the neutral explications by Ariadne Conill, who developed Freenode’s long used IRC software Charybdis (resp. ircd-seven, which is based on Charybdis) and who was not involved with Freenode anymore at the time the events started happening.

The events following May 19th on the contrary were conducted under public focus. After a slightly challenging start several FOSS projects and users switched networks from Freenode to Libera.Chat. The exchange has not yet complated and can be viewed live in the statistics maintained by netsplit.de. Meanwhile Freenode’s own numbers have statistically visibly started to decrease. One should however keep in mind that netsplit.de only graphically visualises the numbers reported by the IRC servers over time; there is no guarantee that the numbers reproted by the IRC servers are actually true. netsplit.de’s statistics are shown in Fig. 2 and Fig. 3 with timestamp from July 19th, 2021.

netsplit-stats-liberachat.png
Figure 2: Statistics libera.chat
netsplit-stats-freenode.png
Figure 1: Statistics freenode.net

On May 26th a bot with IRC operator access level named freenodecom was executed on the channels still existing on Freenode (here is an example case, #lobsters). Without any warning, it withdraw from owners of channels whose topic contained the word “Libera” all access rights and renamed the channels, automatically explaining this with a purported breach of Freenode’s network policy (which appears to have been changed right before in order to faciliate this, link with further references) which forbids advertisement of other IRC networks. Lee, whose nickname is rasengan, has apologised for this heavily generalising action, since there was a number of channels affected who only clarified in their topic that they were not certain what to make of Libera yet.

Afterwards there was relative silence for some weeks. On June 11th then the Free Software Foundation (FSF) announced to execute a decision made earlier and move their IRC channels from Freenode to Libera.chat. As reported by Amin Bandali the same goes for the GNU project. The FSF and the GNU project are highly important players in the area of Free Software and Freenode loses an important operator of IRC channels with this decision. Still, as such this was not surprising news, given that the move was based on the fact that one has had mostly good experience with Freenode’s former staff. Interesting here is what happened after this announcement in the #fsf and #gnu channels on Freenode. According to the announcement, these channels should have born a topic notice pointing to Libera until June 25th, something that was decided with the new Freenode operators’ consent. Instead, on June 13th, an entire group of IRC operators appeared in #fsf and removed without warning all channel administration rights from the FSF. A Chatlog whose authenticity cannot be proven is said to document the event. It is exemplary for the emotions affected by the topic: both Freenode’s IRC operators and the FSF’s staff yell at one another. Since the IRC operators technically have more power on Freenode, the dispute is forcibly ended by them by applying a K-line (server ban) to the FSF person (the same Bandali who wrote the announcement for GNU).

Currently last chapter in this saga is the rollout of a new server software on June 15th, which has not been announced on Freenode’s website, but only via Global Notice, and which is exeucted without transferral of the existing databases. Since the old servers are still functioning in part, this is effectively a voluntaryly induced netsplit: the different IRC servers of the same entwork have a different opinion about which nicks and which channels exist.

Drawing conclusions

It is obvious that Freenode as we knew it does not exist anymore. In so far, everyone is recommended to switch over to OFTC or Libera.Chat. This purely practical recommendation however is not the reason for this article, since it should be known by everyone until now anyway. I want to talk about some more general topics.

About the future of Libera.Chat and Freenode

First of all there is the question whether it is possible for Libera.Chat to establish itself as a competitor to Freenode at all. A plausible fear is that Libera.Chat is going to suffer from the same fate as LibreOffice: the volunteers disassociate themselves with the holder of the rights to the name and attempt for years to regain the old name’s (OpenOffice’s) fame. After twelve years the name LibreOffice is still mostly unknown outside Linux circles. If one takes this as measurement for Libera.Chat, then the network is on a year-long path of unknown usefulness, while Freenode still profits simply from its name’s popularity alone and continues to attract users even though its semantics changed. As of now, there are hints that this scenario will not come true. For this conclusion it is not required to apply far-fetched thought patterns as they surface in statements like “This channel was originally created … on freenode, and stayed with the network on 2021-05-19 after that domain was lost”11 This cryptic statement is better explained by this Sysop statement: „The network is the people, not a domain name“. , but it is sufficient to take a look at the statistics and the exodus of prominent projects.

Even more, it appears as if Freenode’s new IRC operators are striving to thoroghly destruct Freenode. One has called the aforementioned netsplit an attempt of “suicide”. This alone may not be convicing (Freenode’s staff views their actions generally as a path to take IRC further), but the moderational qualities shown by Freenode’s new operators are an entirely sufficient guarantee for emptying the network from users. The cases described above – the freenodecom bot and the manual forced handover of #fsf – show that the new Freenode staff lacks leader qualities. In both cases not only was the technically hardest sanction (K-line resp. forced channel takeover) applied within a short timespan, but this moderational action was conducted without any following of an escalation process, namely without any previous warning. This is not a professional way to deal with breach of network policies, especially given that these policies were changed just shortly before. Thus, one has rightly critisised that Freenode’s new operators are abusing their power. As if that was not bad enough, these abuses are executed in a way to openly show the technical power available to the IRC operators and display how much fun it is for them to exercise this power against those who cannot withstand. The aforementioned #fsf Chatlog can serve as reference to this behavior (nicks with staff mark and the root nick are Freenode operators):

2021-06-13 06:04:23 → TheRedHorseman (~bagira@freenode/staff/phanes) has joined #fsf
[…]
06:43:07 → Foxy (znc@freenode/staff/foxy) has joined #fsf
06:43:46 → job (job@gateway/shell/tilde.team/x-dhtjyelnzoocvubg) has joined #fsf
06:44:04 → root (root@internet.relay.chat) has joined #fsf
06:44:19 → azend (~quassel@unaffiliated/azend) has joined #fsf
06:44:20 job            oh no
06:44:26 root           sudo su
06:44:35 TheRedHorseman o/
06:44:37 ← fling (~fling@fsf/member/fling) has quit (Ping timeout: 245 seconds)
06:44:50 Foxy           \o
06:45:02 * TheRedHorseman trots around in a circle, eyes gleaming red in the dark
06:45:16 → altwulf (~altwulf@64.227.64.196) has joined #fsf
06:45:46 ← wolftune (~aaron@75.164.131.0) has quit (Quit: Konversation terminated!)
06:45:53 → wolftune (~aaron@75.164.131.0) has joined #fsf
06:45:57 -- Mode #fsf [-o ggoes] by OperServ
06:46:50 ggoes          never a dull moment
06:46:56 bandali        ^

What happens subsequently is unworth of publically citing, but this is already enough to see how one does not approach a conflict. This is a way to demonstrate to others that one finds them inequal. It fosters a climate of fear which nobody is going to enter into voluntaryly. Therefore, it is not far-fatched to attest Freenode to be on the way to turn into a kind of digital Khazad-dûm. Different from how Oracle dealt with OpenOffice, the existing reputation of the name Freenode is systematically damaged. That actually will benefit Libera.Chat alone for the reason it is not Freenode with its negative associations.

Update 2021-06-26:
Gustaf Erikson kindly provided to me his chat logs for #fsf and #freenode from the relevant day. I can confirm that they match what has been cited above.

What is going to happen with IRC?

Until May 19th, 2021, Freenode was the largest IRC network still in existance, which provokes the question if its destruction is equivalent with the end of IRC as a whole. Some projects have decided to not migrate from Freenode to Libera.Chat or OFTC, but instead to entirely different media; NixOS for instance is migrating to Matrix. The FSF and the GNU projects on the other hand specifically decided against this option, because Matrix did not satisfy their requirements of Free Software use22 Interestingly they also decided against XMPP, but with another argument: it was found to not provide sufficently more features compared to IRC to justify the switch of the communication medium. . Given the difficult development situation with Matrix (see above II.1) this probably is a sensible decision. If however a sufficient number of projects take the Freenode breakdown as an incentive to turn down IRC entirely, then May 19th, 2021, will be recognised as the beginning of the end of IRC in the Internet’s history.

Something one should also be worried about is whether the decisions by Freenode’s new IRC operators damage the reputation and reception of IRC as a whole. The hacker community is traditionally seen as difficult and one requires a rather thick skin in order to deal with it. Torvald’s public outcry against NVIDIA exemplarifies this. The name Freenode was for about twenty years synonymous with the place one enters into if one wanted a faster and more informal discussion about a FOSS project than it was possible on the project’s fora and mailing lists. If this place now is lead by a narcisstic IRC operators team, this could damage the reputation of both the medium IRC and the hacker community as a whole. This is something that cannot really be excluded at this point. It can only be hoped that either Freenode’s new IRC operators recognise their responsibility or they complete their destructive work consequently enough to create a gap that Libera.Chat is able to fill before the larger building collapses.

Currently it looks as if the latter scenario becomes real. Although the exact reasons leading up to the events of May 19th remain in the dark, one should recognise the Libera operators’ talent. Just on the very day that Lee uses his newly gained power on Freenode, nearly the entire staff team not only resigns, but immediately can point to a nearly fully functional alternative network. This clever double action has generated a noticable news media adoption, which has moved the aging medium of IRC back into the light of the public once more. This has had immediate consequences: those who followed the chats happening in the first days of Libera.Chat in the meta channel #libera could observe many people who were in first contact with IRC at all or at least since a long time and who were astonished by the medium’s vividness. Whether this effect is of lasting duration is something yet to be seen. In any case, the IRCv3 project should try to leverage this unexpected new attention which is given to IRC.

IRC has seen many other protocols and services come and go and it is sensible to predict that the events surrounding Freenode are insufficient to take the IRC protocol as a whole out of order.

Final words

Freenode is ending, Libera.Chat is starting. The future of IRC as the communication medium within the FOSS area is uncertain as it never was before: it could be that Freenode’s breakdown is the start of the end of IRC, because many people evaluate new media and then decide against IRC. Maybe, and currently this appears to be more likely, the increased media reports cause the aged medium to regain attention and strengthen both Libera and IRC as a whole.

Footnotes:

1

This cryptic statement is better explained by this Sysop statement: „The network is the people, not a domain name“.

2

Interestingly they also decided against XMPP, but with another argument: it was found to not provide sufficently more features compared to IRC to justify the switch of the communication medium.