Case Study


Governing an On-Line Community: IRC Administration

Structure of IRC Networks

An IRC network is a linked set of servers. Servers are linked so that channels can be shared between them. This way, instead of having one computer that has to deal with all the users, load is distributed over many machines. Some networks have servers in foreign countries, which allow for faster connections for users there.

There are varying criteria for admission of new servers to the network. Connection speed, reliability, and hardware setup can all be factors. Each server has an administrator (Admin), usually the same person who owns the machine.

Once a server is running, the Admin appoints IRC operators (IRCops) who maintain the server, answer user questions, and resolve issues. Their role is part technical, part social. They must be able to handle flooding attacks as well as discipline rude behavior. They can remove people from the server, or ban IP numbers from returning for a given amount of time.

Each channel is like a specific room, usually devoted to a particular topic. A channel operator (Channel Op) is in charge of a room, and can choose who is allowed to enter and participate. Channels span the network of servers, with people connected to a server able to see anyone who has entered that room from any of the other servers on the network.

Rules and Repercussions

Networks and even servers themselves can set acceptable use policies and rules for their users. One example from the Castlenet IRC network can be found at http://www.castlenet.org/policies.html. Servers display a message of the day, or MOTD, on login, oftentimes containing some rules. For example, the MOTD on the Choas.MI server on the SpaceBall network contains this section:

-  1.  No clone/flood bots
-  2.  No advertising
-  3.  No illegal activities
-  4.  No asking for O: lines
-     IRC is an unmoderated medium.  We take absolutely no
-  responsibility, and explicitly disclaim any legal liability
-  for the content of any messages which pass through this server,
-  and the results of running any commands you do as a result of
-  being "on irc".  This server is not to be used for any illegal
-  activites. Rules may change without warning or prior notice;
-  watch this space. We reserve the right to deny access to this
-  server to any user, host, or site without warning or need for
-  explanation.
-  For ADMIN/HELP type: /join #SpaceBall-One

This is a fairly typical example of policies. A statement saying that anyone can be removed at any time, and a warning about not attacking the server (through flooding and cloning).

Kicking: Rude behavior is likely to get you kicked from that channel, a small form of punishment/warning. You are free to return to the channel, but more than likely will be kicked again for similar behavior. Anyone who has operator status for that particular channel can kick someone.

Banning: If a user has repeatedly been offensive in a channel, or has launched a flood attack on the server, their IP address may be given a "G: line." This bans that IP number from accessing the given server or network for a fixed amount of time.


The structure of an IRC on-line community is remarkably feudal. Server administrators are essentially kingdoms of their realms - free to impose whatever rules they like. They can appoint whomever they like to be IRCops, and usually appoint trusted acquaintances -- a practice that can lead to a clique-like social structure. On Castlenet, the various Admins must approve network-wide policy by a majority vote.

IRCops can be likened to knights in the feudal system. They can exert their authority in any chatroom, and protect the server from attacks. They also handle complaints from users. Someone can report a problem user to them and ask that he or she be banned from the server. IRCops ban people from a server using the G:line command. A standard of conduct is that you do not remove someone else's G:line. Even though an Admin may ask an IRCop for the reasoning behind the ban, and request that they think about their decision, they generally do not revoke a decision, according to Sonja Wong, an experienced IRC user and Admin.

Channel Ops are like local officials, managing their small communities. Anyone can request to start a channel, and a Channel Op can give Op status to whomever they like in their own chatroom. Castlenet's policy statement includes a section on channel managers, which states that they are allowed to ban Admins and IRCops from their rooms if they like. Only in cases of abuse of authority are these bans questioned.