Pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong are using FireChat to keep in touch and bypass an internet and network lockdown in the country.
The app relies on ‘mesh networking’ to let users send messages to nearby friends even if Internet access gets shut down or where wireless networks are congested.
Just like Twitter during the Arab Spring protests, FireChat in Hong Kong has become the right tool available at the right time.
San Francisco-based Firechat surged in popularity earlier this year in Iraq and Taiwan. Growing political turmoil and web censorship across both countries lead to users embracing a ‘private internet’ where they can message each other without fear of the government shutting down access to the web.
On Sunday, FireChat saw more than 100,000 signups in Hong Kong. The massive spike in usage followed China’s blocking of Instagram on Tuesday.
Protesters had been relying on Instagram to communicate, so when it got blocked, many of them turned to the more-decentralized FireChat.
A network fueled by people
FireChat’s parent company plans to add verified usernames and encryption to FireChat soon.
In Nearby mode, FireChat connects mobile devices to one another via direct, peer-to-peer connections instead of going through cell towers. Its range is about 40 to 70 meters (131 feet to 220 feet).
To reach more remote devices, it sends messages through a series of intermediate devices. The result: The more people using FireChat, the farther its mesh network can reach.
FireChat could even be used as an easier way to share files with friends, much in the way many do with WhatsApp, but without the need to slowly upload via a network or router, it can simply transfer directly.
Chat rooms can be created to hold groups allowing chat and sharing among many users at once, a feature that’s ideal for organising protests.
Watch this unedited video showing a protester using Firechat here: