Freenode Is Dead... and Now What?

Posted on May 21, 2021

The news is well-known. We’ve lost Freenode as a trustworthy actor in the world of IRC. We’re dealing with a hostile takeover of the network, including legal threats to the voluntary staff, a quick migration to the new Liberachat network… lots of confusion… lots of people and projects migrating there or to OFTC…

It’s sad. Very sad. The solution, namely, massively migrating to another server brings in the huge problem of moving lots of communities in a very short time, before something bad happens again… Some of them will jump late or won’t catch the train in time… Sighs… And some will choose to jump to other networks… maybe due to features… maybe due to preferences… maybe due to not fully trusting the people behind Liberachat… This is going to be a mess and it already is…

I’m sad.

So now what? I mean, I already have my Liberachat account set up. I also keep an OFTC account around. I see that almost all the rooms I joined (occasionally) on Freenode have migrated… They’re not that many, but quite a few. I see the numbers, though: they’re lower… way lower. I want to believe all the missing users just didn’t hear the news or were inactive users… but… well… they were online some days ago, right? Even if you keep your unattended account connected for days, I guess you know you’ve got it? You should be on the know right now, shouldn’t you? I’m not that kind of user, though: I only jump online when actively able and willing to take part in the conversation… My point: those users who haven’t migrated by next week or maybe two weeks from now won’t ever migrate. They’re probably those kind of people who believe Freenode == IRC? Maybe there’s a big portion of people who believe this means the death of IRC altogether?

Freenode was?/is? too big. This made it a very attractive target for precisely a manouver like this: great reputation online, lots of users (and their data!), and lots of people believing that particular server to be IRC itself… If you’re after controlling IRC, how would you resist taking over Freenode!

I don’t see that being a problem per se, though. If I ran some popular FOSS service, I’d love it becoming a huge service used by millions. It’d mean that lots of people are enjoying a piece of software that is probably1 way more ethical than the proprietary alternatives and, for sure, developed in the open. Of course, I would feel compelled to implement all the measures possible to make that place the safest I could… and I wanna believe Freenode did so…

Yet sometimes it is not enough.

It isn’t a matter of technology. Someone told me that “XMPP wouldn’t ever fall to a take-over like this;” therefore, XMPP > IRC… Nope. The same way that IRC hasn’t been taken over, XMPP wouldn’t ever be… Yet any XMPP instance is totally vulnerable to the very same attack that has knocked Freenode (an IRC instance) down… Oh wait… What was Google’s shutdown of GTalk anything else but a shutdown of the biggest XMPP instance ever? The federated nature of XMPP didn’t prevent that in any way… People who were really interested in the protocol migrated to other instances… and the protocol began its slow death…2

I pray this doesn’t kill IRC. IRC has outlived every single fad in the communications department, especially in the FOSS community. This makes me… hopeful? Maybe more hopeful… Yet I know our history and blows like this one can be fatal.

That’s why I’m sad. I can’t predict the future, but I don’t want to also lose IRC, though.

  1. Totally unpopular opinion here: FOSS services aren’t automatically “more ethical.” You will never know what someone else’s server is really doing. You don’t know whether the server’s sysadmins have patched the code to do nefarious things and there’s no way to reproduce the build unless you’re a sysadmin of that server yourself! ↩︎

  2. You know I believe XMPP is a bad idea. I’ve got back to trying it again… and it’s as terrible as it was… And Conversations makes everything even muddier… I’m serious: IRC is superior. Period. ↩︎