Restrictions on IRC Clients

IRC came about at a time when the internet was still largely an academic network. The culture of the internet at the time was much more open, with security and privacy being at most an afterthought.

The first IRC servers offered a great deal of transparency, and a number of commands and features exist in the IRC protocol which are now heavily restricted on many networks.

A complete list of these restrictions is impossible, as they are ever evolving in response to new forms of abuse, however this document attempts cover as many of the restrictions commonly imposed on clients as possible.

Command Throttling

Many commands in the IRC protocol are now subject to throttling by the server to prevent them from being used too frequently. Commands which produce a lot of output are typically the most heavily restricted - MOTD, LINKS, TRACE, NAMES, and WHO are all commonly affected by rate limits.

High traffic mode (HTM)

High traffic mode, or simply HTM, is similar in purpose to command throttling, but rather than throttling individual users, HTM is designed to be automatically activated and deactivated when the server crosses a threshold of network traffic.

HTM can activate routinely as a result of a netburst (the process of resyncing the network that happens when a netsplit heals), or it can activate because of a coordinated attack on the server.

While HTM is active, most commands that trigger large responses from the server, such as LINKS, MOTD, and the like, are all disabled for ordinary users. This aggressive measure hopefully allows the server the opportunity to recover without adverse impact on connection stability, and is meant to be a temporary, automated measure.

Information Hiding

More than a decade passed during which IRC servers on almost every network of any importance was targeted by DDoS attacks. Often these attacks were retaliation against servers for the actions of their IRC Operators, but they also happened sometimes with little apparent cause.

Frequently these attacks would be targeted in order to cause the maximum possible disruption to the network, by crippling important hub servers. As a result, many networks began to require that information that was once freely available be hidden.

Information about the network topography was one of the most logical areas to restrict - commands like LINKS and MAP are frequently modified to either return no information, return a “flattened” list of servers without information on how they are interconnected, direct clients to an webpage with network information, or even restricting these commands to IRC Operators only.

The capability to mask IP addresses for servers also came bout in this era, with the introduction of the “hidden hub”, hub servers which would accept no clients, have hidden IP addresses, and have no valid DNS information. As such, the IP address and sometimes even the geographic location of certain servers could be kept completely secret - in many cases even from IRC operators.

Host address masking for at least some users was also introduced in this era of constant network attacks. The connection lines in the server configuration for certain users, usually IRC operators, were routinely masked, with fake hostnames displayed for these users. Some networks chose to extend these protections to all users in some form or another, with partial masking frequently being automatically applied to all users.

Spam Prevention

Aggressive restrictions have also been applied in the fight against IRC spambotd. Clients which join and leave a large number of channels quickly are subject to throttling or automated banning on many servers.

A new protection feature, called “target change restriction” was also introduced. Target change protection works by the server caching a list of the nicknames a Client has recently sent messages to. This list has a limited number of entries, and when the list becomes full, new “targets” are not allowed for a period of time - after which the oldest target can be replaced by a new target. Though this seems somewhat convoluted, it’s actually transparent to most users, and highly effective at disrupting spambots, as they cannot efficiently operate under the restrictions.

Restricted Mode

IRCNet defines a special “restricted mode” for client connections, which can be defined by connection class in the server configuration. When a connection is designated for restricted mode, the user has the +r mode automatically set for their connection at the time they connect, they cannot remove this mode, they do not get ops if they create a new channel, and, while they can be oppped by other users, they are effectively treated as unopped, and can’t use any of the powers of a channel operator.

Restricted-mode connections are individually decided by each server on the network, so a user that finds themselves in restricted mode can often move to another server and be free of the restrictions. Restricted mode effectively treats some connections as being second class citizens, but the introduction of this mechanic effectively led to a greater number of “open servers” on IRCNet, where the majority of servers had been geographically restricted (“closed servers”).