The Fall of Freenode

Dec 17, 2022

History rhymes. Federation, identity issues, and a hostile takeover.

IRC was the communication platform of choice from the 90s until around 2000 when AIM took over. Around 2010, Freenode emerged as the go-to for the open-source crowd and then grew over the next decade to become the home for many software developers, DevOps professionals, and hobbyists. I’m thankful for the graduate math students that took the time to help me with my high school calculus on ##math.

The events leading to the fall of Freenode are eerily similar to the ones happening to Twitter today. A look at the fall of Freenode.

Identity

As Freenode grew, it eventually encountered many of the same problems IRC had encountered in the past. Specifically, user identities became a problem. Verifying who was using what username was often impossible, leading to trolling and some users taking advantage of the fuzzy rules around username ownership and legal compliance. This problem was compounded by the fact that Freenode was completely open, meaning anyone could register a username and basically create an identity with complete anonymity.

Federation

IRC was a federated network, in some ways similar to Mastodon’s ActivityPub. Mastodon federates new servers by default, whereas IRC federation happens more tacitly. Federation is agreed upon by operators, and multiple operators might run nodes for a network.

A Hostile Takeover

In 2017, Freenode was incorporated under Freenode Limited and sold to Andrew Lee, allegedly to take part in a conference sponsorship. Freenode had originally incoporated as a non-profit, but had since been dissolved. For some background, Andrew Lee is the founder of the VPN company, Private Internet Access — and also the crown prince of Korea.

In 2021, Lee exercised his ownership of the Freenode domains and gave his staff admin access to the network. Lee put an ad for one of his other companies on the Freenode homepage. The other staffers (all volunteers) elected a new head of staff without Lee and published a blog post about it. Lee removed the blog post. 14 Freenode staff members resigned.

They created a competing network, libera.chat, and there was a mass exodus of users on Freenode to Libera. The owner of libra.net (which some believe to be Lee/Freenode), redirected users to Freenode, maybe in an attempt to confuse users looking for the real domain.

It only took 2 months for almost 90k users to leave Freenode. Libera sits at about 50k users today.

https://netsplit.de/networks/top10.php?year=2021
https://netsplit.de/networks/top10.php?year=2022
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