Developers of the open source organization Freenode are quitting en masse after Andrew Lee, a tech entrepreneur and the Crown Prince of Korea, has taken control of the network in what developers are describing as an "hostile takeover."
Freenode was founded in 1994 and has since become the largest free and open source project that runs Internet Relay Chat (or IRC) networks, which were once hugely popular and are still an important internet chat protocol. It has traditionally been run by volunteers and has amassed "90,000 users and just shy of 50,000 registered channels," according to the organization's official website. While it is not as popular as it used to be, it is still a key site for free software project coordination.
On Wednesday, a dozen Freenode staff volunteers published posts announcing their resignations, which explain their decision to quit. The broad strokes of the letters explain that they believe Lee bought the entire Freenode network under what they believe are false—but legal—pretenses, and that they have lost control over the network. They said there is little the staff can do to oppose changes that Lee wants to implement.
The now former staff members announced that they are launching a new chat network, Libera.chat, to continue Freenode's mission.
Marco d'Itri, one Freenode staffer who has resigned, wrote in his post that "the freenode IRC network has been taken over by a narcissistic Trumpian wannabe Korean royalty bitcoins millionaire."
Technically speaking, Lee is not the Crown Prince of Korea. South Korea is the Republic of Korea, a presidential representative democracy that does not recognize a monarchy. Lee is related to Yi Seok, a descendant of the Korean empire royal family, which has no power anymore. Yi Seok declared Lee crown prince in 2018.
"There is no moral, and likely no legal, way for [Freenode] to have been sold," one developer wrote. "I am numb from pain."
"The freenode user base should consider very strongly that a hostile entity is now in operational control over the network, and is in possession of your data."
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.
Lee contested the former staffers' claims, saying "to say that staffers were unaware would be misleading," he said in a phone call.
The ramifications of the former staffers' decision are still unclear, but they could have a huge impact for developers all over the world.
Parker Higgins, a technologist who works at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said that "Freenode has been part of the infrastructure of the free software community for so long that it's hard to even imagine the projects this schism will affect."
"There are literally decades of integrations, web clients that are likely to be used by people who are not following the twists and turns of this saga, documentation that mentions Freenode by name, approximately a zillion scripts and bots, all that will need to be updated against a backdrop of IRC's continuing marginalization," Higgins told Motherboard in an online chat. "It's going to be tough, and I think we'll see projects focus a little more energy on more centralized platforms, and a lot of people in the free software community will be disappointed by that."
On May 11, according to staff member Aaron Jones, Lee announced in the official Freenode support channel that he was appointing a new person to run the network's infrastructure, which was "a violation of the agreement" that the staff members thought Lee was abiding to after buying Freenode in 2017.
"Giving him (or his designated representatives) access would violate the trust of all of our users, and would also be illegal in many of the jurisdictions in which we operate," he wrote. "The freenode user base should consider very strongly that a hostile entity is now in operational control over the network, and is in possession of your data."
This appears to be the final straw that has prompted the staff members to resign, but tensions between them and Lee had been growing in the last few months and years.
"Every remaining staff member was lied to. Our community was lied to," JonathanD, another staff member, wrote in his resignation.
Dahlskjaer did not respond to a request for comment sent to their personal email.
Do you work or volunteer for a free or open source software project that relies on Freenode? We’d love to hear from you. You can contact Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai securely on Signal at +1 917 257 1382, OTR chat at firstname.lastname@example.org, or email email@example.com
In February of this year, Dahlskjaer put the logo of Shells.com on the Freenode website. Shells is a company co-founded by Lee, at which Mark Karpeles, the founder of the highly controversial (and defunct) Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox, is CTO. Staffers criticized this decision and Dahlskjaer subsequently resigned.
The staffers then elected a new head of staff. Lee told Motherboard that he was not given a chance to weigh in on this decision, and that he believes it's always been clear that he owned Freenode. Staffers said in their letters that Lee had no right to interfere in the decision.
"Freenode has been part of the infrastructure of the free software community for so long that it's hard to even imagine the projects this schism will affect."
On March 15, Lee tried to appease the staffers' concerns in the official Freenode support chat.
"I have not, am not, and will not interfere with the operations of freenode outside of when asked for help," he wrote, according to Jones.
On April 18, a staff member who goes by Christian updated users about the changes in the organizational structure in a post on Freenode's official site. Then, on April 30, the post got deleted, according to several staffers, who saw it as another sign that Lee was trying to establish control over Freenode.
The conflict between Lee and the staff members finally reached a point of no return on May 11, with Lee's appointment of a new person to run Freenode's infrastructure. The next day, Lee published an announcement on his GitHub page accusing staff members of forcing Dahlskjaer out and acting irresponsibly and accused the head of staff voted by the other members, known as tomaw, of attempting an "hostile takeover."
"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," Lee wrote. "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."
In an internal chat from last Friday, Lee and staffers argued over who should have operational control of Freenode. At one point, Lee snapped at one of the former staffers.
"You ban abusively, and haven’t really helped freenode at all until now. Freenode policies have been shaped for you and your posse to extract value and now you’re holding it hostage while asking people to go to another network."
Several staff members challenged Lee's version of what happened in their resignation letters and posts, accusing Lee of pressuring tomaw with lawyers and a gag order.
Lee said that in early April he hired lawyers to send a letter to tomaw to ask him to give him control of Freenode's assets, including the domain and the source code repository. Lee said that tomaw then gave him the control back.
Tomaw did not respond to a request for comment.
"Despite all the falsehoods they have been spreading about me, I do thank the former staff for all of their efforts until now, and I wish them the best," Lee said, adding that he does not think that launching a new IRC network is beneficial for the open source community. "We're going to keep Freenode going, as it always has. It will continue to be what it has been, the home of the free open source software movement."
It's too early to tell what organizations that rely on Freenode for internal communications will do at this point. Daniel Stenberg, the author and maintainer of the command line tool cURL, told Motherboard that his organization has not "officially switched yet but we are prepared to do it" as Freenode "seems to be free falling right now."
Several technologists mourned what's happening to Freenode.
"Heartbreaking to see Freenode in disarray after decades of being a vital open platform for communities," tech entrepreneur Anil Dash tweeted.
Jackie Singh, a cybersecurity engineer who recently worked for the Joe Biden campaign, thanked the resigning staffers in a tweet for their "incalculable" impact on technology.
"I spent countless hours on freenode from the time I was 12 years old and had the incredible luck to discover IRC," she told Motherboard in an online chat. "If you wanted to connect directly with the maintainers of an open source project and the enthusiasts around it, there was no better place to chat and get direct support than Freenode. It has been a mainstay of our lives for a long time. Despite folks who wish for a return to the heyday of IRC, we are certainly witnessing the end of an era."
This story has been updated to clarify Andrew Lee’s “Crown Prince” title.