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The freecycle controversy

eudyptes sent me a link to the Aquarionics blog, which is asking why "Freecycle – a movement devoted to giving things away for free and using other people’s (freely given) resources to do so – is becoming [a huge corporate entity]."

I wanted to answer, but trying to describe the history of the controversy got longer and longer, and I finally gave up and decided to post it here and simply provide a link. As lengthy as it is, the following account is still incomplete -- believe it or not, it only hits the highlights. There have been a great many more abuses, and rationales, than there is time or space to include.

Of course, there is more to be written -- the lawsuit is still going on. But as far as I know, this is the first time all the history of this sorry spectacle has been gathered in one coherent account.

In answer to your question, many of us at FCNext -- formerly FreecycleNext -- are wondering the same thing.

Freecycle started out as a wonderful grassroots idea. Deron Beal, an employee of a nonprofit in Tucson called RISE, Inc., started a Yahoo group called Freecycle to facilitate local recycling in his city. Someone in another city heard about it and asked if they could start a group too, and Deron and RISE said sure, go right ahead. As it caught on RISE didn't want to keep it in house, so it removed its name and let Deron have it.

Deron urged everyone to "start your own freecycle network!" He welcomed anyone to either use his logo or make their own. He opened a website called The Freecycle Network (TFN) to list the new groups as they formed, and started the freecyclemodsquad Yahoo group for moderators to network. He signed all his email with "Keep on freecyclin'!" and the website listed right at the top the "Number of cities freecycling" and the "Number of people freecycling."

Things went wonderfully for over a year. All major decisions were made by polls the modsquad -- it was a true grassroots operation. Deron vowed over and over that TFN would never be commercialized: There would never be any ads, there would never be any money involved in any way.

Then, many of us believe, Deron came down with a malady referred to as Founders Syndrome, which can occur when a passionate individual brings an organization through a difficult time, such as a start-up. At first it makes sense for one person to make all the decisions, but as an organization grows, its decision-making needs change, requiring mechanisms for shared responsibility and authority.

When those decision-making mechanisms don’t change, regardless of growth and changes on the program side, Founder’s Syndrome becomes an issue. It's seen most frequently with organizations that grow rapidly from a mom-and-pop operation to a powerhouse, while decisions are still made as if the founders are gathered around someone’s living room, desperately trying to hold things together."

Deron got dollar signs in his eyes. He applied for a trademark for the logo; applied for 501(c)3 status; and began to seek funding, admitting openly that he wanted to "quit his day job." In the early spring of 2005, Deron announced -- after the fact -- that he had received a grant of $130,000 from Waste Management Corp. and had indeed quit his day job to work full time for TFN.

Many moderators were furious that the decision had been made without our input. There was a mass exodus of experienced moderators who felt that WMC -- whose environmental record is horrible -- was an inappropriate sponsor and/or felt that it was a betrayal for Deron to be supported financially by their volunteer work after he had promised repeatedly that he would never try to get money from the concept.

After that, Deron started being more and more controlling. He built an enormously complex, multilayered management structure -- yet the Board of Directors still consists of only three people: Deron himself, Deron's wife, and a close friend of theirs. [Added 11/21/09: The Board page was created in 2003 exactly as you see it. The text still states, exactly as it did over 6 years ago, that "we realize fully that the below is, by necessity, a start-up board. We are committed to adding to the talent which this board offers in the coming year...." Such is the quality of all of promises and "commitments" Deron makes.]

A lot of moderators feel that while this is great for Deron Beal, it's harmful to The Freecycle Network. An organization big enough to need such a large and complicated structure should have a real board, with a minimum of 12-15 people, to guide it.

Conversely, an organization still small enough to have only a start-up board of three closely-related people needs to be more nimble than such a heavy structure allows. It's also inappropriate because the board decides such things as the Executive Director's salary and job description ... and when the ED and the board are essentially the same person, it creates a huge conflict of interest.

Once Deron was a full-time employee of TFN he became extremely secretive. He kept promising to release financial information, but it never happened. None of us in the rank and file know his job description or what he actually does all day to warrant a salary of $45,000 a year; what he bought with the thousands of TFN's dollars he spent to furnish his spare bedroom as an office (when he could have done it largely for free through his own organization!); what travel expenses he is taking out; who else is being paid and how much; and a great many other things that we would like to know about the organization we donate our time and energy to support.

People began asking questions about those things, and began to call for a real board of directors, pointing out that the first paragraph of the page about the board says:
As a start-up nonprofit, we realize fully that the below is, by necessity, a start-up board. We are committed to adding to the talent which this board offers in the coming year as we grow to meet The Freecycle Network's™ growing needs. (Side note: our bylaws restrict the board size to a maximum of fifteen members.)
That paragraph was written in 2004, so "the coming year" is long gone. Yet today there are still only the three closely-related board members, two-thirds of whom are supported financially by the organization.

But anyone who persisted in asking hard questions suddenly received a notice to step down -- or worse, were summarily removed from ownership of their group. If they refused, and Deron's ironically-named "ersatzfriend" ID did not have ownership itself, Deron had Yahoo close the group completely. Over 600 groups were closed in the spring and summer of 2005 alone, leaving thousands and thousands of people who had been happily freecycling out in the cold just because Deron felt that their moderator was asking too many questions.

By the summer of 2005 even Deron's managers were starting to ask questions. The transcript of a private chat session was accidentally released, in which Deron gloated over a plan to fire one of the managers "at high noon" and laughed gleefully about it. Most of the other managers realized how much harm was being done and almost the entire management structure left en masse, including the paid second-in-command and "mother hen" of TFN, Nancy Castleman.

Out of pure vindictiveness, Deron had Yahoo close not only Nancy's own freecycle group, but also pull her personal Yahoo ID. In one fell swoop she found herself in limbo -- with her address book gone she couldn't contact anyone, and with her email address gone no one could contact her.  And all of her archives of past correspondence were gone.

Meanwhile, Deron became extremely aggressive in protecting what he called his "trademark." The problem was that the application cited only the logo, while he was trying to protect not only that and the name "The Freecycle Network," but also the word "freecycle" itself. Many of us feel that trademarks on the logo and the TFN name are perfectly legitimate, but not the word "freecycle." It's equivalent to Best Buy suing every book and magazine that refers to a particular car or appliance as being a "best buy" -- which is ridiculous, and which Best Buy has enough sense not to try to do.

Many moderators got angrier and angrier, and one of them who had the wherewithal to do it finally challenged Deron. Tim Oey, owner of the FreecycleSunnyvale (Calif.) group, said that he did not object to Deron's claim on the logo and the name of the organization, but that the word "freecycle" was generic and must be released to the general public. Deron refused to negotiate, so Tim sued The Freecycle Network, since lawsuits are the customary way trademark disputes are resolved in the US. Tim sought no money, only to have the word "freecycle" declared generic.

Again acting vindictively, Deron retaliated by filing a SLAPP suit -- a form of litigation filed to intimidate and silence a less powerful critic by so severely burdening them with the cost of a legal defense that they abandon their criticism -- against Tim and his wife personally, demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages and a gag order against Tim.

The judge granted the gag order, which has been loudly decried by the legal profession as a bad decision that illegally limits free speech. An appeals court agreed, and overturned the gag order -- however Tim feels constrained to remain mum lest the suit somehow end up back in the lower court where he fears angering the judge.

Meanwhile, Deron continues his power grab. The reason for requiring organizational approval of new groups was supposed to be in order to prevent overlapping groups. The mods of the adjacent groups were supposed to be consulted whenever someone wanted to start a group nearby to make sure it wasn't overlapping territory that was already being served. In fact, it says that right on TFN's Start a Group page. (At least it did as of this writing -- I expect it to go away any time now.)

However, in a transparent attempt to get the number of groups as high as possible in order to show the court how big TFN is, new groups are being started all over the place, regardless of whether they overlap an existing group's territory. If the new moderators were instructed to work with the existing mods to delineate where each group's area would end and to reduce crossposting, it wouldn't be quite as bad -- but they aren't. The result has been massive duplication of posts and furious mods.

The Patent Office's decision on the trademark aplication is on hold until the lawsuit is decided. And wisely, the IRS has not acted on the 501(c)3 application that was filed over two years ago. Deron claims it's because "they've never seen anything like us before, with everyone giving to everyone" -- but there really isn't anything charitable or educational going on. I would imagine the makeup of the board might also have something to do with it.

Last week -- late August 2006 -- in the face of rising claims for financial information about the organization thousands of people are working for without pay, Deron posted a supposed IRS Form 990. However it has not been made clear whether the form was actually filed, since TFN has no federal status (it is a nonprofit only in the state of Arizona) so there's no requirement to file any 990s. It's also badly out of date -- it's for the fiscal year beginning in June 2004 and ending  June 2005. This seems to be a convenient way to mask what's really being spent, since only a very small amount of the grant money from Waste Management had been received during that period and TFN's finances are very, very different now.

The latest development is that another moderator, Charlotte Hess, who used to be high up in the organization, is fighting back against Deron's threats. The Freecycle Mod Manual has a great deal of her writings in it, and she has sent a Cease and Desist order to TFN to stop using her copyrighted material. Someone did a hasty editing job on them and reposted them -- which actually makes the offense even worse. She is now preparing to go to court.

And the negative publicity is piling up as Deron continues his fight to the death, which is garnering increasing ridicule. In July 2006 Grist Magazine published an article that begins:
I've got a funny story for you. Here's a preview of the punchline: freecycle, once a clever, idealistic way to prevent material from entering landfills, has been made by its leadership into a clown show.

The two best places to follow the controversy are:
  • What's Up (or Down) at Freecycle?, a blog entry at Business Week, where you can learn about both sides of the controversy in the participants' own words; you can keep up to date by following the comments.

  • Greenribbon.us, a website begun with the express purpose of "keeping freecycling free for everyone" by providing a forum for discussion and an archive of the blizzard of legal paperwork.


Aug. 31st, 2006 02:16 am (UTC)
eek. It seems to be working well on our counties list - but then again most of us are sheltered from the upper level politics!
Aug. 31st, 2006 02:54 am (UTC)
Exactly! The members just want to freecycle in peace. That's why it's so heinous when Deron has a group yanked because the moderator was asking too many questions.

As a member, you don't need a big organization -- all you need are other members to freecycle with, and a moderator to make sure there's no spam and everybody follows the rules. Hundreds and hundreds of groups have left, and all the mods report that it had no effect on the members at all ... they're still happily freecycling.

I don't donate all that time and energy so Deron can play big shot and get rich. I do it for my members. As long as TFN leaves us alone, we'll leave them alone ... but if not, my members and I have no need for them at all.
Sep. 8th, 2006 07:12 pm (UTC)
You're sheltered from the "politics" because if you dare to ask questions you will be mizzled on both the modsquad and the OIDG groups. If you persist, your group is delisted from the website. If you continue to persist, you are removed from the modsquad and the OIDG and asked to turn your group over to freecycle personnel. Then the Cease and Desist letters start if you refuse to turn your group over to them (the group you created and the group you promoted to make it what it is today). If you still refuse to comply, then freecycle will contact yahoo and yahoo will not only delete your group, but they will delete your ID as well.

Sep. 8th, 2006 10:13 pm (UTC)
Re: sheltered?
I don't have this level of bitterness (yet) since my group hasn't gone through this (yet) -- but I'll vouch for the fact that everything you said is absolutely true. And I'm sure I'll feel a lot more bitter and angry if (when?) it happens to me.

I've come close a couple of times -- one being when I declined to allow my new GOA to join my group, and again when Tim called me to warn me that the discovery phase of the trial was starting and the many helpful emails I sent to him would be seen by Deron.

Of course that other shoe may still drop, but I'm hopeful that the suit will be settled in Tim's favor before Deron has time to go through each of the thousands of emails, and then I can leave without having to change the name of my group.
Aug. 31st, 2006 02:54 pm (UTC)
it's sickening that yahoo yanked castleman's personal email id!
Aug. 31st, 2006 07:00 pm (UTC)
That was the most shocking part to me, too. Yahoo should be ashamed.
Aug. 31st, 2006 07:04 pm (UTC)
Oh, and involving the wife, too - that's slimy. Here's the text of that:
Defendants are residents of Sunnyvale, California. Defendant is a former member of The Freecycle Network. Defendent Jane Doe Oey is, on information and belief, the spouse of Defendant Mr. Oey, and all actions taken by Defendant were taken on behalf of the marital community.

What the HELL?? Marital community?! So everybody that's legally married to anybody is at risk of being sued based on their spouse's actions? Or did the husband post from an account called "The Oey Family" or something?
Sep. 25th, 2006 01:51 am (UTC)
Marital Community
>>What the HELL?? Marital community?! So everybody that's legally married to anybody is at risk of being sued based on their spouse's actions?

In a nutshell, the answer is YES.
Sep. 1st, 2006 02:48 pm (UTC)
I just made this. Wish me luck!
Nov. 23rd, 2008 04:36 am (UTC)
Wow, still pretty accurate
A number of things have happened since this blog post but it pretty accurately captures the state of things as of 2006. It's interesting what you find when just googling around.
Nov. 23rd, 2008 04:48 am (UTC)
Re: Wow, still pretty accurate
BTW, this account is quite thorough. Thanks for the detailed record of early freecycling (and TFN) history!

Tim Oey
Nov. 27th, 2008 07:33 pm (UTC)
Re: Wow, still pretty accurate
Would be very interested to know the complete state of TFN affairs as of now though. but I agree this account is very thorough.

Jun. 8th, 2009 12:31 pm (UTC)
I have been there
All, I have been there for the whole thing. I came in to freecycle in 2003? or 04. Then everything started hitting the fan. I stayed in the background. And yes what they did to Nancy and Tim was without conscience. There were many more people who they did this to. Here in Texas we started the rEcycle network to keep from losing our people and Deron tried everything to keep it from happening. However before we moved everything over we spent all night preparing and presented a done deal. You see Nancy had worked closely with us when she saw how Deron was doing and she even knew he was going to mess her up bad for daring to speak out. Well the last I heard from Nancy she was on a different board on the google site and we were able to still communicate with her. There has been a great many really good people hurt by Deron, yet now most of us have been able to bring other groups into being and do what we all want to do and that is FREECYCLE OR RECYCLE the things we do not want so they do not land in a landfill somewhere.
Sep. 8th, 2009 01:33 am (UTC)
This is happening to us in the UK Deron is trying to force us into his domain My freecycle!
Hi there!
We here in the UK are now being hounded by Deron Beal and he's trying to force us into his personal domain MyFreecycle and is closing down any branch who has dared to speak out against his tyrany (Trust me not too strong a term) We need branches of freecycle worldwide other to join with and support us against his autocractically closing us down because we don't agree or accept his methods and were now working toward walking away from TFN speak up with and for us here in the UK help us to get freecycle back to its grass roots.
Sep. 11th, 2009 01:01 am (UTC)
News from the UK

UK branches of Freecycle are breaking away from US founders after a dispute over management of their local web pages

Freecycle is for giving away things you don't need through the web so they don't go to landfill. Now the UK arm of the scheme is about to be trashed by the very people who run it because of a rift with the US founders.

It's expected that tomorrow, hundreds of local Freecycle branches across the UK will declare an orchestrated independence from their American parents.

The acrimonious split follows unsatisfactory negotiations which could have given Freecycle's UK moderators the ability to localise their web pages and allow them to serve the community better. For example, a moderator for one local branch was not allowed to ask a moderator from a neighbouring locality to act as locum while they go on holiday. Ideas on the ground, such as a Freecycle bay at the local tip, were ruled out.

The UK is probably the most enthusiastic Freecycling country in the world, hosting just 10% of all the branches but handling 27% of all Freecycling activities.

Anyone can join a local group for free and post a notice offering to give something away. Branch moderators screen every notice. Established members can also post requests for stuff they want. No money changes hands and goods that might otherwise end up at the tip get a new life.

I've used it to find loving homes for an MP3 player, seven pairs of roof-racks and an ugly little table. Like the best jumble sales, I've also come away with a few things that seemed like a good idea at the time, including a box of pickling jars.

There were 510 Freecycle branches across Britain moderated by local UK residents, but in the last two weeks control has been removed from a few dissenters at a time by the Freecycle Network "hub" in the US. This process takes a few days, so there have been four or five branches offline at a time until new moderators - not always based in the UK - are installed.

The moderators of the Brighton branch, which had more than 17,000 members, were among the first to jump ship and start up on their own. In emails to all members, they announced they were setting up their own service and inviting everyone to join it.

Called GreenCycleSussex, it uses the free web service offered by Yahoo Groups. Their decision leaves Freecycle Brighton without a local moderator to supervise the publishing of messages.

The departing Brighton moderators explained their reasons thus:

Earlier this summer four leading members of the National UK Freecycle team resigned, including the director, in protest at the lack of change. Moderators around the country then formed an Independent Association of Moderators and again tried talking with The Freecycle Network [in the US]. Hoping to negotiate and find a positive way to continue under the banner of Freecycle. This has not been possible.
We acknowledge that what Freecycle does in the community is great. We just don't agree that we should be dictated to from across the Atlantic and adopt inappropriate policies. We think the members and moderators make Freecycle great.

There has [sic] now been multiple summary expulsions of moderators who have asked for change from Freecycle. All UK moderators have lost their freedom of speech within the organisation. So here in Brighton we have decided to go our own way along with the majority of other Freecycle UK groups.

Nan Bixby, hub coordinator for the Freecycle Network in the US, told the Guardian by email that he was not aware of any plans for UK groups to break away. "Sadly, there are times when groups feel they can better serve their local community in other ways. When this happens we wish them well and continue in our efforts to save local landfills. We always look for moderators who are local to the community even if that means temporarily, such as in the case with the Brighton group, we may have interim moderators not local until a local moderator can be found," Bixby said.

In some ways, the fragmentation of Freecycle in the UK could be seen as a natural next step – it is an idea to promote giving, so maybe it is not surprising that some have chosen to take it.
Sep. 19th, 2009 11:39 am (UTC)
Thanks for this post, it fills in a lot of the background that I didn't know.

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