05.19.21

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The Panic Over Freenode Isn’t Justified and Its Reaction Mostly Disproportionate

Posted in Deception at 11:08 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Burning Down Freenode is Easy, But at What Cost?

Freenode on logos
Freenode scandal mostly seems to boil down to logos

Summary: The Freenode controversy has resulted in what we consider to be disproportionate response, which likely necessitates further mediation for an amicable resolution; please do not participate in the anti-Freenode (warped into anti-Lee) rally as it harms Free software more than it helps it

I‘ve spent the past week speaking to many of the parties involved over IRC, E-mail and some social (control) media. In the process I rushed to publishing a number of posts about Freenode, culminating in some videos and articles last week. Those were done in a hurry and with limited consultation (enquiring and reaching out to involved parties). I am extremely saddened to see Freenode coming under an attack which bears many of the same hallmarks I saw in the “cancel RMS” lobby, initiated partly by former FSF insiders (which gave it legitimacy, at least on the thin surface).

“In the same way that “cancel RMS” in 2019 was about some tactless E-mails (seen as insensitive towards victims) and in 2021 “cancel RMS” was all about the man coming back to the FSF’s Board (anger superficially boosted and artificially floated by the set of new claims, shifting to a whole different set of poor-quality accusations).”I’ve long known about the real owner of Freenode. That owner stayed in the shadows, uninvolved in any direct way. That sort of changed lately when the owner of Freenode wanted to promote his brother’s business, Shells, which basically helps raise awareness of GNU/Linux. They liaised with SUSE earlier this month. Shells isn’t something I’d personally use; it’s not for me. Whether Freenode should be in the business of endorsing Shells, even as a sort of sponsor, is a legitimate ethical question. But it seems like pretty much the whole catastrophe right now boils down to that. In the same way that “cancel RMS” in 2019 was about some tactless E-mails (seen as insensitive towards victims) and in 2021 “cancel RMS” was all about the man coming back to the FSF’s Board (anger superficially boosted and artificially floated by the set of new claims, shifting to a whole different set of poor-quality accusations).

This afternoon somebody told me about the “shitstorm” brewing — something we had anticipated since last week. Long story short, many Freenode volunteers (the word “staff” does not imply salary) created their own alternative to Freenode over at libera.chat (they decided on this domain a long time ago). Interestingly enough, about half of all resignations were announced in a proprietary software platform of Microsoft, namely:

That’s not to discount or to mock those people, but a better choice of platform would do more justice to the people behind libera.chat (GitHub is the very opposite of “liber” or “libre” anything). By means of coincidence, some of the resignations came from people who also signed the RMS hate letter.

Other resignation messages were self-hosted:

Some slippery sites then followed with loose claims and what we believe to be mischaracterisations or exaggerations (inflation of claims). Here’s one example calling Lee “Trumpian wannabe korean royalty bitcoins millionaire.” (To quote Marco d’Itri)

That seems unfair and borderline racist. Americans of East Asian descent have long suffered from Trumpian politics and calling American people “korean” lends to this idea that certain people, based on their race/roots alone, can never be “true Americans”…

Marco d’Itri stated (it was in Planet Debian): “To make a long story short, the former freenode head of staff secretly “sold” the network to this person even if it was not hers to sell, and our lawyers have advised us that there is not much that we can do about it without some of us risking financial ruin. Fuck you Christel, lilo’s life work did not deserve this. [...] The people that I have met on IRC, on freenode and other networks, have been and still are a very important part of my life, second only to the ones that I have known thanks to Usenet. I am not fine, but I know that the communities which I have been a part of are not defined by a domain name and will regroup somewhere else.”

I didn’t fancy some of the language, including statements such as “Fuck you Christel” (she’s female by the way) because having learned the circumstances, that sort of misrepresents what actually happened. Causing distress or what some have called “harassment” won’t help Christel and won’t help anyone.

Posting a so-called ‘FAQ’ entitled “what the fuck is going on?” on Microsoft’s GitHub also isn’t helpful (both the language and the platform). The comments on all the threads we’ve seen in GitHub, no matter whose side (pro- or anti-Lee statements/sentiments), are what some call “shitposting”. There’s not much of an effort there to pick up facts. It’s a lot like social control media sites, which is what GitHub inherently is, where mobs thrive… or at least groupthink.

Jake at LWN then wrote a short summary sans all the unnecessary drama (there are comments too): “Several readers have alerted us to some serious problems at freenode, which runs an IRC network that is popular in the free-software world. Evidently there has been a change of control within the volunteer-run organization that has led to the resignations of multiple different volunteers, at least in part due to a concern about the personal information of freenode users under the new management. “The freenode resignation FAQ” has collected a bunch of information (and links to even more resignation letters) that may help shed some light on this mess. From the FAQ: “Freenode staff have stepped down. The network that runs at freenode.org/net/com should now be assumed to be under control of a malicious party.” In the meantime, many of the volunteers who resigned have formed Libera.Chat to continue the legacy of freenode. LWN will be keeping an eye on the situation, stay tuned…”

This has done nothing to explain the nature of the grievance, it just says that many people leave and where they leave to.

José Antonio Rey (Ubuntu Community Council), who also signed the RMS hate letter, later wrote this:

As a result, Mr Lee now has operational control over the freenode IRC network. I cannot stand by such a (hostile?) corporate takeover of the freenode network, and I am resigning as a staff volunteer along with most other freenode staff. We simply do not feel that the network now remains independent after two heads of staff appear to have been compelled to make changes to our git repo for the website[4].

This is an over-simplification if not distortion of what actually happened and we’ll come to that in a moment. It’s not a “(hostile?) corporate takeover” but a response to something that happened (but some want to omit that part, like selective footage of cops who had been intentionally provoked, though that’s not to over-generalise cases of police brutality).

Phoronix, which has long used Freenode (I used to hang out in their channel even more than a decade ago), then expressed concerns (lots was published about this on Wednesday):

Seemingly by the minute today there are more free software projects leaving the Freenode IRC network and moving to alternative IRC networks or other chat platforms.

The Freenode IRC network has been around for more than two decades and very popular with free/open-source software projects for engaging over development discussions, user support, and more. But now due to a “hostile takeover” and most/all of the volunteer staff leaving the network, projects are scrambling to move to alternative chat platforms.

Not all of them do. Hours ago Gentoo stated: “We are aware of the situation surrounding Freenode ownership and / or administration (1, 2, 3, 4) and are watching current developments closely. So far no decision on Gentoo involvement has been taken. Please check this page for future updates.”

Several other distros are “on the fence”. It’s untrue to say that there’s mass exodus, but the media causes more panic than is justified.

Not many people will see this response from Lee (unfortunately also in the same Microsoft platform that was used to rally people against RMS; the same media that attacked RMS (VICE) now attacks Lee with terms like “Korean Crown Prince” in the headline although he’s an American, born and raised in the US). To quote the chronology, as Lee sees it:

Posted on Freenode Limited on the morning of May 12, 2021 US PST:

Approximate timeline:

1. Shells sponsors freenode providing 3k/mo.

2. Freenode lists the shells logo.

3. Tomaw’s team attacks christel, who had run Freenode since early
2000, and she resigns, unable to deal with the persistent harassment.

4. Rather than allow for a usual grace period after resignation
(e.g. as we speak, several resigned former-staffers are still OPd
in here), or allow for a reasonable transition from one head of
Freenode staff to the next (something reasonable and responsible
to do to ensure proper continuity of operations), Tomaw’s crew
abruptly cuts christel’s access while she is asleep that night.

5. Tomaw turns around and asks me a bunch of questions if I’m going
to challenge his control. He also says he understands I am the
owner. I suggest that freenode needs decentralization and good
governance, to prevent the kinds of hasty destabilizing things that
have transpired.

6. I hear whispers that Tomaw is up to something and reach out to
prawnsalad (kiwiirc) who has nothing but good to say about Tomaw.
He schedules a meeting with tomaw and me to mediate.

7. In the meeting Tomaw and I disagree entirely about freenode
domain ownership (which we’ve since come to an agreement on), but
we both clearly agree in writing not to make any changes to ownership,
governance, or project trajectory until we speak again. I created
a document detailing the discussion on April 8 and general plan on
Google Docs (dated).

8. Rather than wait until we speak again, Tomaw turns around and
changes up the staff and website.

9. Upset that tomaw has renegged on his commitments and acted rashly,
prawnsalad says he’s not going to deal with tomaw and discussion
ends; the mediator drops out.

10. I ask tomaw wtf and he brushes me off.

11. I get a lawyer and tomaw says he understands and is sorry etc
and sends me a letter.

12. Meanwhile some other story is being told to the staff that
doesn’t match the truths listed here.

Given the millions I have injected into freenode thus far, the fact
I own it and the fact that I protected the freenode staff with
professional legal work and funding when they needed help and they
could still lie and slander like this… says a lot about who they
are. It saddens me that christel was forced out, and I wish she’d
feel safe returning. I’m frustrated that tomaw’s hostile takeover
seems likely to succeed, in spite of all. I simply want freenode
to keep on being a great IRC network, and to support it financially
and legally as I have for a long time now.

So this is where we are. I passionately want freenode to survive.
I have serious concerns about the stability of the project with
tomaw here, given his duplicitious and rash actions. But I also
have faith and trust in the freenode staff as a general body. So
it’s my hope we can resolve this leadership issue. I proposed a
way to decentralize freenode in the past and would love to embark
on that journey still. Perhaps if tomaw could be forthright with
everyone about what’s happened, the staff could decide for themselves,
but I fear he has been far less than forthright. I do not want to
interfere, but I also want to protect freenode from what appears
to be a pretty hostile set of moves that I believe threaten the
network. This concern might point to larger issues we’ll need to
address about governance in general, and I’m open to having those
discussions and formalizing fair and reasonable processes. But for
now in the short term, I would really like to work together to find
a resolution to this. Freenode must survive in tact, not torn to
pieces.

We’ve checked for ourselves, over at IRC, if that makes sense. Moments ago there was also a formal blog post/news item about it.

To the credit of The Register, unlike other publishers it did bother speaking also to Lee, at least to hear the other side of the story. There are many informative bits in that article, including an explanation from Lee himself (other publishers did not bother). It also speaks of Christel: “In 2017, the then head of staff at Freenode, Christel Dahlskjaer, incorporated it as Freenode Ltd and sold it to Andrew Lee. At the time, both the head of staff and Lee promised that Freenode would keep running as it had been until then, and that the incorporation and sale was done just to sponsor a conference. That was true until this year, according to several developers.”

Privately, we’ve seen evidence of abuse against Christel.

After much research and fact-finding we’ve come to the conclusion that the crux of the matter is, Lee wanted to add the Shells logo to the Freenode site (it is there now in the site) and he was locked out of the domain etc. Given the thing he was looking to promote, which isn’t inherently unethical in its own right, it seems like a storm in a teacup or moles being raised to tall mountains. Surely there’s a more reasonable reaction to all this (other than burning down the whole network).

Getting out some knives and pitchforks is easy. The question is, does the action justify the reaction? Is the reaction proportional? Seems not…

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