Season 4 Episode 7 May 27, 2021

Freenode’s Mass Resignations, NVIDIA’s Less Crypto-Friendly Chips, Twitter’s Crop Algorithm Investigation, and Remote Employers Excluding Colorado

Pitch

Colorado? I don't know her.

Description

In this episode, we talk about companies excluding the state of Colorado from remote opportunities due to the Equal Pay For Equal Work Act, NVIDIA making their graphics cards less desirable for cryptocurrency miners, and Twitters report on its investigation into its cropping algorithm, which many people criticized as having a racial and gender bias. Then we speak with James Eaton-Lee, former staff member at Freenode, and current staff member of Libera.Chat, which was created in response to entrepreneur and Crown Prince of Korea, Andrew Lee, taking control of Freenode, which led to a mass resignation of many of its staff developers.

Hosts

Saron Yitbarek

Disco - Founder

Saron Yitbarek is the founder of Disco, host of the CodeNewbie podcast, and co-host of the base.cs podcast.

Josh Puetz

Forem - Principal Engineer

Josh Puetz is Principal Software Engineer at Forem.

Guests

James Eaton-Lee

Libera.Chat - Staff Member

James is a staff member at Libera.Chat and was a Freenode staffer from 2007-2021. He has worked in tech for almost 20 years, and presently works in privacy and cybersecurity for an INGO.

Show Notes

Audio file size

57044378

Duration

00:39:37

Transcript

[00:00:10] SY: Welcome to DevNews, the news show for developers by developers, where we cover the latest in the world of tech. I’m Saron Yitbarek, Founder of Disco.

 

[00:00:20] JP: And I’m Josh Puetz, Principal Engineer at Forem.

 

[00:00:22] SY: This week, we’re talking about companies excluding the State of Colorado from remote opportunities due to the Equal Pay for Equal Work Act, Nvidia making their graphics cards less desirable for cryptocurrency miners, and Twitter’s report on its investigation into its cropping algorithm, which many people criticized is having a racial and gender bias.

 

[00:00:42] JP: Then we speak with James Eaton-Lee, former staff member at Freenode and current staff member at Libera Chat.

 

[00:00:47] JE: All of the remaining staff who had not already left felt that it wasn’t appropriate for them to continue volunteering based on their concerns they had over that level of operational demands to access data or systems.

 

[00:00:59] SY: So a law in Colorado called the Equal Pay for Equal Work Act, which passed last year, has led to companies excluding their remote work opportunities from anyone living in the state. So the law does several things. A few notable of which is that it requires job listings to contain a salary range, prevents employers from asking about your previous salary and prevents them from stopping an employee talking about their wage rate in any way with others. One such company that isn’t a fan of this law is DigitalOcean, which had a disclaimer on a recent front-end software engineer position, which said, “This position may be done in New York City or remote, but not in Colorado due to local Colorado job posting requirements.” The disclaimer has since been removed and a spokesperson from DigitalOcean wrote in an email after being contacted by 9News for a statement about the listing. “As a global company that hires across all 50 states and in multiple countries, we decided to put a short pause on posting jobs in Colorado as we assess the impact of the new law. We currently have employees in Colorado and we’ll continue to hire in Colorado.” But the issue seems to be pervasive. Aaron Batilo, Staff Software Engineer at Color, created a website to track job listings that refuse to hire in Colorado called “Colorado Excluded”. At the time of this recording, 33 companies are listed as avoiding hiring in Colorado, including Airbnb for a product manager role, GoDaddy for a software development engineer role, Drizly for a senior software engineer role, Eventbrite for a staff software engineer role, and Betterment for an engineering manager role. So Josh, what’s your take on this? How do you feel about what won the law and then also the response to the law?

 

[00:02:50] JP: So this act actually passed in May of 2019, but just went into effect in January of 2021. And I’m really torn on it. On the surface, I think it’s a great law. A lot of the stuff in the law is aimed at making sure that employers can’t compel workers to disclose their salary. The idea of publicizing what a salary range is, is something that I think we talked about last week at length, which would be helpful for trying to level the playing field for negotiation. I think where it falls down is that the law is just local to Colorado because it was just passed by the Colorado State Legislature. So what you’re seeing is companies in other states, all of a sudden, becoming aware of this law and being like, “Oh, crap! We don’t have a plan for this. Let’s not hire in Colorado right now. Let’s not hire in Colorado forever.” I don’t know. I think what they wanted perhaps to happen in Colorado was to have companies see this law and say, “Great! We’re going to put salary ranges on our jobs.” And, “Hey! We’ll just do that for all our jobs across the entire country.” And that’s not the way incenting and the way a lot of capitalists companies work.

 

[00:04:00] SY: Yeah. I was very surprised at the workaround. I was like, “Oh, yeah, I guess you could just ignore a state.” That just never occurred to me as a possible solution. When I first heard about this law, it kind of sounded something that you just got to do. You just got to follow the law. Right? So finding that loophole I thought was just very interesting. It kind of makes me feel a little sorry for the Colorado folks out there, our fellow engineers and developers, and also just in other industries who might be having a tougher time than they should. Finding a job is kind of an unfortunate situation to be in. But I think more than anything, what I worry about is if companies kind of hold this position of just excluding Colorado indefinitely, is it going to make it harder to pass this kind of law in other states?

 

[00:04:46] JP: Right.

 

[00:04:46] SY: That’s what I’m worried about.

 

[00:04:47] JP: It’s almost like this legislation needs to be done at a federal level, if you really want companies to start doing it equally.

 

[00:04:57] SY: Yeah. Because if it’s just one or even a handful of states who have this kind of law, I think it’s fairly easy for companies to just say, “All right, fine. Well, these three states. That’s just maybe like California, New York. Those might not be as ignorable, but I can see companies just saying, “Fine. We just won’t hire from these states and that’s okay because we’ve got 45 other states that we can go to.” But it would take a lot, I think, for enough states to have a law like this where a company can’t use the same loophole.

 

[00:05:29] JP: I should note this already happens with a lot of remote companies in the United States. You’ll see some smaller companies, especially, not higher in certain states. You have to hunt around in a job posting for it, but they’ll say like, “We hire candidates in these areas,” and they’ll have a list of states and that’s usually done for tax and economic reasons.

 

[00:05:47] SY: Right.

 

[00:05:47] JP: It gets down to like state taxes and like where do companies have to pay state taxes. And sometimes companies will say, “Well, we don’t want to hire someone in say New York, if we don’t already have someone working there because we don’t want to have to start to pay New York State taxes.” So this does sort of happen on a company by company basis, but I don’t think it’s as common as some of these larger companies that we’re seeing kind of nope out of putting disclosures on their Colorado listings.

 

[00:06:13] SY: Yeah. That’s a good point. I mean, no company is obligated to hire from any particular place. Right? That’s the one thing that is probably good to remember is they don’t owe us a job posting. So hopefully, we have the right incentives to make salary transparency a requirement, hopefully not make it as painful, and that we’re able to have clearer, more transparent hiring practices just across the nation. And hopefully, companies are going to be willing to go along with that. And instead of fighting it the way it seems like they’re fighting it right now.

 

[00:06:48] SY: I’m really curious what you think about this from your perspective as a founder. The thing that seemed upside down to me about the way this law is enacted is if I’m putting out a job posting and I’m just generally saying, like, “I will hire anyone in the United States. Go.” I’m not thinking about the laws of all 50 states. I’m probably not going through the laws of all 50 states and saying, “Okay, does my job description qualify in each of those states?” The other thing I’m not doing is I’m not, I know this is like a dumb example, but I’m not driving the Colorado and posting it on a board somewhere in Colorado.

 

[00:07:26] SY: Right. Right.

 

[00:07:26] JP: I’m not like specifically targeting coloradojobs.com. I’m just saying maybe on my own website, “Hey, people in the United States, I’d like to hire you.” And all of a sudden, here comes Colorado saying, “Whoa! You need to put this on here if you want to hire people in our state.” So I can kind of sympathize with the company being like, “Whoa! You’re all in my business. I was not expecting this.” Yikes!

 

[00:07:48] SY: Yeah. And if it’s just one state, it’s easy to say, “Okay, you’re doing too much.” You know what I mean? Like, “You’re going too far. So I’m just not going to deal with you.” But yeah, it did kind of make me wonder. There must be people out there at a company level, maybe it’s the HR team, maybe it’s lawyers who are kind of keeping an eye on this kind of stuff and who try to prepare for it or try to be aware of it. But yeah, I think the idea of kind of keeping track of every single law in every single state that might apply to your hiring practices, that definitely does feel like a load of work to take on for a company.

 

[00:08:22] JP: Yeah. I’m hoping it’ll spur companies to actually put this information on there. It also seems like it could be like really easily worked around some of the salary ranges I’ve seen on job postings have been extremely broad. They’ll say like, “This position pays from $40,000 a year to $200,000 a year.”

 

[00:08:39] SY: That’s exactly what I was thinking. I was like even if you had a salary range, it’s still pretty easy to gain because you can just put a really wide salary range that doesn’t actually help the candidates decide if they want to work at that company. So in a way, I think it’s something that we’re going to need to want employers to be on board with, and if companies keep fighting it, I feel like they’re going to find ways to avoid it if they can.

 

[00:09:02] JP: We mentioned this was in Colorado. You mentioned that if an employer wanted to exclude a state, they might not do so for say a larger state like New York or California or Texas. If one of those states were to pass a law like this, and I could totally see California doing that…

 

[00:09:16] SY: Yes, me too.

 

[00:09:17] JP: I think we’d really see some traction on this. No offense, Colorado.

 

[00:09:18] SY: Yeah. I totally agree. Sorry, Colorado. But yeah, no, I’m with you on that one.

 

[00:09:24] JP: Well, this news might make some gamers very happy. Earlier this season, we talked about there being a semiconductor shortage, leading to a slew of consumer electronics being unavailable. One other thing that was making gamers specifically upset was cryptocurrency miners buying up really powerful graphics cards so they could farm cryptocurrency more efficiently leading to the current market where buying a new graphics card is incredibly difficult due to demand. Well, Nvidia announced that they found a way to make their cards less desirable for crypto miners by having the hash rates on its new GeForce RTX 3080, 3070 and 3060 Ti graphics cards. By having the hash rate of these cards, it reduces the crypto mining performance of them by up to 50%. These cards will be labeled as light hash rate or LHR, and Nvidia will have specific cards for professional crypto mining available. Saron, what do you think about Nvidia modifying what they think the card should be used for after the fact?

 

[00:10:21] SY: I find it really interesting on two levels. On the one hand, I appreciate the business savviness of this because I don’t know what the pricing is for the two chips, but I can definitely see a situation where the cryptocurrency one is more expensive and the LHR version is maybe a little bit cheaper. So I appreciate kind of them knowing their audience and their target markets and their customer segments and being like, “Okay, we’re going to have one that just makes a little bit more sense. Maybe it’s either the same rate, the same price, or maybe a little bit cheaper, and we’re going to have kind of the hardcore version for our crypto miners that we’re going to sell at a higher price point.” And so if that’s how they do, if they do like a price differentiation that way, I think as a business, that’s just really smart. That’s just smart business and marketing. So I think that’s great. I’m also very grateful for, we talked last time about how there’s all this hardware shortage, right? Because like chips are not being manufactured. And so I feel like with this, it kind of gives the everyday person a chance at actually getting a graphics card, because I know it’s just been really, really hard for folks to just get basic computer parts. So I’m definitely grateful. I remember my little cousin wanted to build his own computer and he like could not find a graphics card. He just couldn’t find one because the one he wanted was sold out and there was only the super expensive one, which is way out of his price range, and it’s because all these people are eating it up. And so I feel like if there was a much lighter hash rate version of that, he’d have a chance to actually buy one. So yeah, I really like this idea.

 

[00:11:55] JP: So the high-end GeForces, the GeForce RTX 3080, the manufacturer suggested retail price is depending on the card, anywhere from 700 to 900. Today, that is not what you’re going to pay. Number one, you’re not even going to find it in stock because scalpers buy them up like crazy and then they get resold on eBay for anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000.

 

[00:12:19] SY: Yikes!

 

[00:12:20] JP: Yes. So yeah, no gaming PC over for your relative. That’s a lot for a kid to put together from allowance money.

 

[00:12:29] SY: Yes.

 

[00:12:29] JP: So Nvidia does sell a card that is specifically geared towards cryptocurrency mining, the CMP 30, and the retail prices on those are also in the like the seven $700 to $900 range. I wonder if we’ll just see the prices of those skyrocket or like what will happen there. I wonder if they’re just kind of shifting the prices and the demand.

 

[00:12:50] SY: Yeah. I’m really interested to see how this all works out. This is a pretty new distinction, differentiation for them, and I’m curious to see how it works out over time and if it kind of catches on and how people feel about it. So early days, but I’m really interested to see how this goes. Yeah.

 

[00:13:07] JP: Here’s a question. Do you think this is shady or unethical in any way by Nvidia? We should point out that they’re not crippling existing cards. This is just going to be for the graphics cards going forward, won’t be able to do as much cryptocurrency mining.

 

[00:13:21] SY: No, I don’t think so. I think, again, it’s saying, “I know there are people who are doing these specific tasks that’s a more labor intensive. Let’s make something for them. And most people aren’t and let’s make something for them.” So, no, I think it’s just good business.

 

[00:13:34] JP: Part of me is suspicious though, because like that $2,000 to $3,000 that the cards get resold for on eBay, Nvidia doesn’t see any of that money.

 

[00:13:41] SY: Right.

 

[00:13:41] JP: They only see the original $700 to $900. So the suspicious part of me is like, “Oh, is this a way for them to raise prices on the cryptocurrency cards, but not get blowback in the press?”

 

[00:13:54] SY: I still think that’s smart.

 

[00:13:56] JP: That’s fair. Yeah.

 

[00:13:58] SY: Yeah. That’s one thing I’ve always just wondered in general about, because it’s not just Nvidia. Like this happens with Nike all the time. People, they sell, what is it, $100, $140, sometimes $200 shoes?

 

[00:14:10] JP: Oh, the sneaker market.

 

[00:14:11] SY: Yeah. And then they get resold for like thousands of dollars that I kind of I’m like, “Man, Nike isn’t seeing any of that.” I mean, Nike is a big company. They don’t need the extra money. But just in general, on a matter of principle, they’re being resold for so much more and the people producing it don’t really see any of that. So to me, I think this makes sense, if people are clearly willing to pay thousands of dollars then Nvidia can capture the value that they’re feeding, yeah, I think that’s a good thing.

 

[MUSIC BREAK]

 

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[00:15:35] SY: So way back in our first season, we talked about a wave of Twitter users posting photos, showing algorithmic bias in the app’s photo cropping features. Users would upload a long photo with two different photos on each end and see which photo the algorithm chose to feature and its square crop once the tweet was posted. What would end up happening was the algorithm consistently choosing to show the photo of a white person instead of a black person or choosing to show a picture of Ted Cruz with large Photoshopped breasts instead of the same picture of Ted Cruz without Photoshopped breasts. For that episode, we spoke with Alex Hanna, Sociologist and Research Scientist, working on machine learning fairness in Ethical AI at Google about this phenomenon.

 

[00:16:20] AH: This already tells you that there’s something about the data that’s being used to train this idea of saliency that is very much codifying the male gaze for one and is codifying also a racialized gaze, the desire to look at white faces, and we don’t really know where that’s happening in the model. There are so many different parts of the process, including the data, including the bias checks that Twitter said that they did on this, and it goes up and up the line to where is this actually being introduced.

 

[00:16:58] SY: That was back in October, 2020, and now after seven months, Twitter has shared some of its findings after doing an internal investigation into its image cropping algorithm. The post written on the Twitter blog first goes into detail about how their saliency cropping algorithm works. Essentially, the model is trained on how the human eye looks at different images and then prioritizes what it thinks is most important to people by essentially scoring things higher or lower, depending on where the eye goes. So in Twitter’s new analysis, they tested their algorithm for potential gender and race based biases by doing a randomized experiment, using individuals of different races and genders. Some of their key findings were that the algorithm had an 8% chance of favoring women over men, 4% chance of favoring white people over nonwhite, a 7% chance of favoring white women over black women, and favored white men over black men by 2%. Rumman Chowdhury, Director of Software Engineering writes, “Even if the saliency algorithm were adjusted to reflect perfect equality across race and gender subgroups, we’re concerned by the representational harm of the automated algorithm when people aren’t allowed to represent themselves as they wish on the platform. Saliency also holds other potential harms beyond the scope of this analysis, including insensitivities to cultural nuances.” Twitter’s ultimate conclusion from these findings was to do away with the algorithmic crop. So yeah, big, big update.

 

[00:18:32] JP: Yeah.

 

[00:18:33] SY: What do you think about this blog post and about what they’ve been working on?

 

[00:18:36] JP: Well, I was really appreciative of all the information that they put it in the blog posts and they outlined how they did the research and what their criteria were and what the actual breakdowns of the algorithm favoring white versus nonwhite, male versus female, which ones were specific. I really appreciate them putting out all this information about like, “Hey, we heard you. There might be a problem. We did some tests. Here’s what we found.” On the other hand, couldn’t they have done these tests before they shipped the algorithm?

 

[00:19:08] SY: Yeah, that’s fair. Yeah.

 

[00:19:09] JP: Part of me wonders why they had to ship the algorithm and then find out. Maybe they weren’t thinking about these potential problems. That’s something we’ve seen with machine learning algorithms time and time again is that as developers, we don’t think about the potential problems their results could be causing until they get out in the wild. The best part about this entire blog post and the part that really resonated with me as an engineer was their ultimate solution was to just get rid of the algorithm.

 

[00:19:32] SY: Yes.

 

[00:19:33] JP: Like I love it. It just seems like it’s too complicated. They were trying to do something to improve the user experience and they found out it doesn’t work so great. It’s problematic. It’s using processing power. “Hey, why don’t we just get rid of it?”

 

[00:19:50] SY: Yeah.

 

[00:19:50] JP: Or, “Hey, why don’t we just let the user select which area is going to be cropped?” I absolutely love that part.

 

[00:19:56] SY: I love that part as well because I think it really speaks to Twitter really trying to value ethical AI and kind of take it seriously because I think it would have been pretty easy for them to go, “We know there’s some flaws.” I can see them saying, “Well, seven percent isn’t that bad.” It’s not like 50%. It’s not that horrible. I think it’s good enough. I think it’s easy for them to say, “We’re working on it,” It kind of sweeps it under the rug and say, “We’re working on it. We’re trying. We’re doing our best. Ultimately, code is going to have flaws. These are ours. And we believe that the feature of cropping is more valuable than the ever so slight bias it might show.” I can totally see a company kind of defending that. And it makes me respect them more that they’re like, “You know what? It’s not worth it. If we can’t get this right, if there’s going to be these issues, then we’re just not going to do it at all.”

 

[00:20:44] JP: Yeah. So one thing that this blog post doesn’t go into is how many pictures are being posted on Twitter and how many pictures were affected by this crop. So seven percent could potentially be millions of pictures. Twitter has 353 million active users right now. Seven percent could be a huge amount of pictures.

 

[00:21:02] SY: Yes, 24 million, which is a lot. Definitely a lot of people, for sure.

 

[00:21:08] JP: Oh, yeah.

 

[00:21:08] SY: I remember when all those criticisms came out. Usually when we see companies getting critiqued, the response we get is some very canned official, legally protected statement from their PR people and it feels very disingenuous, kind of fake. It’s not really a good look. And I remember when this came out. I remember reading a tweet from like the person who was leading the effort, like the actual person. And I remember hearing from the people at actual Twitter, just the everyday engineers, managers saying, “We got this wrong. We should have fixed this. We didn’t see this. Now we’re going to go back and work on it.” And it made me think, “Oh, wow! You all are real humans who give a crap.” It made me feel really happy to see that. And now seeing that they’re actually following through and decided to make what’s probably a frustrating decision for a lot of their engineers who spent so many hours working on this, I can imagine this is not a great outcome for the engineering team. But having them say, “You know what? It’s just not worth it to us,” really makes me respect them.

 

[00:22:14] JP: I’m hoping the next feature they look at, we’ve seen a little bit of this with newer feature development from Twitter, I’m hoping the next feature they roll out, they take the lessons from this and maybe think ahead a little bit, like, “If we’re doing some machine learning, how can we make sure that we include gender and race dynamics in that?” I don’t envy the position of Twitter product management, but you’ve got to think if you’re in that position, you have to think, “Oh, how could this go horribly, terribly wrong? How could users misuse this or misconstrue it?” I hope they take those lessons forward.

 

[00:22:48] SY: Yeah, absolutely.

 

[00:22:49] JP: I also really appreciated the blog post, how the director of Software Engineering, Chowdhury, brought up that even if it’s a seven percent difference, your image being cropped the wrong way due to gender or race, they point out it’s doing a lot of representational harm, even if it’s like two percent or three percent, like across society, it’s contributing to a lot of harm. And I thought that was really big of them to own up to their part in continuing that harm.

 

[00:23:19] SY: Yeah. Coming up next, we speak with James Eaton-Lee, former staff member at Freenode and current staff member of Libera Chat, an alternative network launched after entrepreneur and Korean Crown Prince Andrew Lee took control of Freenode, which caused an uproar and mass exodus of many of its staff developers after this.

 

[MUSIC BREAK]

 

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[00:24:59] SY: Here with us is James Eaton-Lee, former staff member at Freenode and current staff member at Libera Chat. Thank you so much for joining us.

 

[00:25:07] JE: Thank you.

 

[00:25:08] JP: For those in our audience who may not have heard of Freenode. Can you describe what it is and what its place in the developer ecosystem has historically been?

 

[00:25:16] JE: Absolutely. A long time ago, Freenode was one of various large IRC services. So IRC is actually a pretty antiquated protocol for exchanging real time…

 

[00:25:26] JP: You said it.

 

[00:25:28] JE: For exchanging real-time text messages. Freenode originally was a channel and one of the larger IRC networks that a guy called Rob Levin set up, which I think he created in order to exchange tips and tricks on using Linux. And it eventually became a series of communities kind of glued together something called the Open Projects Network. And finally, this thing called Freenode, which in the last couple of years, has been the largest IRC network. At one point in time, it was a kind of weird specialized network that had this particular intention to provide a home for what we always refer to as peer directed projects. So mostly free and open source software projects. And IRC as a whole has kind of been shrinking, particularly as tools like Slack, Discord have become more common, but Freenode has kind of remained as this sort of particular use case. And we tend to find that most big free and open source projects for big Linux distributions to kind of web projects often use IRC as a kind of collaboration platform, lots of developer channels, lots of support ecosystem kind of infrastructure. It’s always been a lovely place, Freenode, to go to and get the support on a whole variety of things and web sort of support communities and dev communities have a sort of osmosis where they can kind of bleed into each other. And chances are if you’re looking for a channel on networking or security that you can join it. There’ll be one there that you can go to and ask for help or support.

 

[00:26:45] SY: How did you come to be a staff member for Freenode?

 

[00:26:48] JE: Originally, I would have joined for technical support on something. I spent a lot of time hanging out in the security channel on Freenode, lots of good kind of cybersecurity and information security discussion. One day I think I was helping someone else and I ended up joining a channel called Tap-Through, which was like a sort of PS support space for using the server. I kind of stuck around and helped people getting connected or troubleshooting. And at some point in about 2007, someone kind of tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey, do you want to help a little bit more formally?” And it was kind of a slippery slope. And then for a period of about 10 years, I spent probably tens of hours a week, some weeks on Freenode. It’s almost been like a part or a full-time job at some periods in my life.

 

[00:27:28] JP: So we’ve been talking about how many of the volunteers behind Freenode have left. Can you give us a play by play of the events involving Freenode and entrepreneur and Korean Crown Prince Andrew Lee?

 

[00:27:42] JE: I would say my understanding is that his belief is that his sponsorship deal with Freenode through a company called Private Internet Access, which he founded, essentially provided him with ownership of the network. I mean, I have to say and it matches the understanding of most of the Freenode staff team. I never understood that there was an ownership transaction certainly in 2017. The staff team were told that there would be no operational influence between Private Internet Access or Andrew and Freenode. But particularly in the last few months, the former head of staff at Freenode had left. And so the staff team elected a fresh head of staff and began a sort of program of governance refresh, slightly more kind of consensus driven, a little bit more democratic and transparent, but I think that’s the point in time at which Andrew sought to exert slightly more influence. And particularly over the last few months, that’s really what has grated with a lot of the former Freenode staff up to the point that actually most of them felt that they could no longer continue. And as you will have seen last Wednesday, all of the remaining staff who had not already left felt that it wasn’t appropriate for them to continue volunteering based on their concerns they had over that level of operational demands to access data or systems.

 

[00:28:54] SY: One of the things that was so interesting to us is that we had someone who was pretty outside of the Freenode world kind of come in and put himself in power. How is someone able to do that?

 

[00:29:06] JE: I mean, it has a vibe of a sort of absentee landlord to exert influence, although I’m not sure any of us really understood that he was an absentee landlord. Looking at the way we’ve structured Libera Chat, actually, you can kind of see how we’ve maybe tried to make some sense of that and approach the problem. In some ways, this is similar to the way that the Freenode staff team had been restructuring the team over the last few months, but broadly Libera Chat is hosted by a Swedish nonprofit, but it has some well-designed governance. So we have a kind of quorum voting system that’s based on members. We have a board, but if you look in our bylaws, which are on the website, most of the power is held by our members. So without a quorum or a kind of consensus among the membership, which is published on the website, it’s not possible to make binding decisions that involve handing over data or selling trademarks or intangible assets like domain names, that kind of thing. We’ve really tried to build the project around this model of being run sort of by and for the community, which was always how Freenode was run, but making sure that the bylaws really reflect that because I think some of our reflections would be that level of governance that’s needed to make sure that projects can remain healthy probably was quite sufficient.

 

[00:30:14] JP: Can you talk about some of the communications and concerns that the Freenode community has had with this new management?

 

[00:30:19] JE: It probably wouldn’t be fair for me to talk on behalf of projects that use either set of servers. I think IRC is an interesting space, as much as we talk about it as a protocol and a series of technology platforms, for me Freenode has always been about the communities. It’s always been about the people. It’s reflected in terms of the staff team who are very diverse and drawn from kind of all over the network, but also the breadth and a number of communities who are on Freenode and now in Libera. And I think the thing that’s special and also the thing that stands to be lost is that set of communities and the kind of metacommunity that they can pose in terms of the way the Freenode network was always run based on this sort of capitalist philosophy, which is deliberately designed to be quite organic, quite sort of self-supporting, the sort of dedication and care of all of the people that work on the network.I think these are all the things that personally am concerned that we lose that the kind of cultural and people things that you get when you have this sort of multi-decade quite organic space that’s composed of hundreds and thousands of community projects. Beyond that, I think in terms of the way that the network is run, I know a lot of users and projects have concerns about how their data might be used and the level of interference. It wouldn’t be fair for me to comment on those, but they’re definitely fair things to be worried about, I think, given what some of our projects do.

 

[00:31:38] JP: So I’m curious, what was the breaking point for you personally that you knew I want to resign?

 

[00:31:43] JE: I mean, I had concerns I think from the point in time that Andrew started trying to get more involved and asserting ownership, right? It didn’t ever sit comfortably with me. It had never been my understanding. I had always understood that Freenode was a commons. It was built by and on behalf of the hundreds and thousands of communities that used it. I waited a little longer than some staff did to walk. I actually waited until an hour or two after Andrew and one of his team took ownership of the sort of back office space, if you like. I wanted to give them a chance to actually come and talk to the staff team and even introduce themselves. At the point in time that they entered and didn’t address it, as far as I could see, there was no transition plan. I mean, it had been pretty clear to me for some time. I think that it probably wasn’t the space for me anymore, but it was the point at which I went, “Look, guys, enough is enough,” I think. That was on the Wednesday, which was the same day that most of our remaining staff team resigned.

 

[00:32:40] SY: So what were some of your biggest concerns in terms of how Andrew Lee might change the Freenode that you came to know and love?

 

[00:32:48] JE: I suppose there were two sides to it really. I mean, one is more straightforward, which is really the integrity of the platform itself, the way that it’s hosted is safe, the way the data is handled is in line with what people expect. I suppose the other is a little bit more ephemeral and it comes back to this point of community. Freenode has always been more than a technology platform. It’s always been about the people who use it and the ethos of we’re a volunteer and staff team who exists in order to make communities prosper, to help them with people, problems, to resolve disruption, but wherever to help communities grow is very different to that of ownership and more kind of hierarchical control. And I think more than anything, the value that Freenode has to projects and communities that use it, the value that Libera Chat has to projects that communities that use it, I think that’s the thing I worry most about the community losing because it’s beyond the risk reduction of having a platform that runs safely. It’s the special source really that actually enables people to build useful and beautiful things on it.

 

[00:33:49] JP: So you’ve mentioned it a couple of times now, tell us all about the new network you’ve started called Libera Chat.

 

[00:33:54] JE: So Libera is a Swedish nonprofit. Almost all the staff that run it are former Freenode staffers. Almost all of them have backgrounds in development or tech. Many of them are involved in a wide range of kind of free and open source software projects. It’s got reasonably transparent governance. We have a public set of bylaws. They include things like an annual transparency report, a fairly well-structured kind of governance process for making core decisions and binding changes. It’s basically designed to continue all of the things that we felt were best about Freenode in line with the original vision. So this ethos of community and project support, we have dedicated projects and community team, a staff team with decades of experience kind of bringing calmness and professionalism to maintaining this common space. We really want for projects that still have a use for IRC to provide them with somewhere, to enable them to continue learning and building and growing. And there are lots of ways that we’re working on the network quite actively at the moment, including matrix support and a bunch of other stuff to make sure that it really remains an outstanding tool for people to use. It’s kind of a beauty in IRC. It’s a very extensible, a very flexible tool. You can get an IRC client on more or less any device that’s got a TCP/IP stack. It’s extremely open. It’s very come as you are. It’s extremely accessible, very low resource requirements, very accessible for people who use screen readers and things. We really want to make sure that that need people have is met by Libera to continue enabling these kinds of communities to prosper.

 

[00:35:21] SY: So why do you feel that it’s important to provide this alternative right now?

 

[00:35:26] JE: So Freenode is a really active platform. It still is. It’s currently got kind of 60,000, 70,000 users connected. There are thousands of projects that use it on a daily basis to build things. It’s really something that’s still useful to a large number of people. And with the future of the platform at stake, both in terms of the infrastructure, but also the culture and the communities, all of our volunteers clearly feel there’s something valuable that needs to continue to be worked on. In the first week at Libera, we’ve gone from 0 to about 20,000 users. The demand clearly indicates that it’s something that’s worth investing time in. And for as long as those users come or for as long as people want to build communities, we’ll continue trying to maintain it.

 

[00:36:04] JP: Do you feel that any network is safe from outside influence over time the way Freenode was?

 

[00:36:11] JE: I mean, we’ve certainly tried to build something that we think is likely to be as predictable and stable and positive as possible. One never knows exactly how groups of people will behave, but we certainly think that putting our time and energy into a really well-structured nonprofit is a way that we can mitigate a lot of that risk.

 

[00:36:30] JP: Here’s a question, just more generally. What kind of value does IRC provide in today’s environment, given that there are so many alternatives to it?

 

[00:36:39] JE: You’re absolutely right. There are lots of platforms that do similar things to IRC, many more than there were kind of 5 or 10 years ago. IRC, it’s got a few things about it that are unique. I mean, one is just the legacy and the way that people have used it historically. It’s got this kind of deep cultural history that actually predates the world wide web because the protocol itself comes from the 1980s and people have been using it since that point in time. It was used for the first citizen journalism during the first Gulf War. Across Freenode and Libera, we’ve seen tons of really interesting communities from people during the Arab Spring 10 years ago, using it to kind of access sensitive communication for the first time, all the way through to some of the most modern tech products. It’s a very vibrant community built around this protocol. I’m not just talking about Freenode and Libera. They’ve always been colorful and anarchic and interesting, and there’s a similar vibe in platforms like Discord. But there’s something a little bit special about IRC in particular, certainly, I feel. I think anyone who has been in IRC for a while would probably give you a different variant on that answer. But also because it’s an open protocol. It’s very extensible. You can do things with it that you can’t with a slightly more monolithic or a slightly more proprietary stack. So there are dozens and dozens of different clients for it. Anyone can run it. You can get it in a more or less any computer you want. It’s very easy to integrate it with other things. Almost the first thing that anyone that likes tinkering with code is likely to do with IRC is write their own client and then probably their own bot. You can use it to pull data from different sources and interact with it in real time. Lots of people use this to look at kind of the commits and code basis or get information about the weather or status reporting from live systems. It’s got this kind of flexibility and extensibility as well as the kind of lightness and nimbleness that is a little bit different to other products.

 

[00:38:23] JP: Is there anything that the end user or someone that loves IRC or loves Freenode can do to help support this new initiative?

 

[00:38:32] JE: Join and be part of it. If you’ve got skills or if you can host infrastructure, if you want to contribute to any of the software packages that people use to get online or however the network itself, those are all great ways to be involved. But mostly, come and join, find communities that you’ve known and loved before or find new communities. Come and be connected and be a part of it. It’s the single biggest thing anyone can do.

 

[00:38:54] SY: Well, thank you so much for being here.

 

[00:38:55] JP: Yes. Thank you.

 

[00:38:57] JE: No worries.

 

[00:39:08] SY: Thank you for listening to DevNews. This show is produced and mixed by Levi Sharpe. Editorial oversight is provided by Peter Frank, Ben Halpern, and Jess Lee. Our theme music is by Dan Powell. If you have any questions or comments, dial into our Google Voice at +1 (929) 500-1513 or email us at pod@dev.to. Please rate and subscribe to this show on Apple Podcasts.