Thousands of pro-democracy protestors are taking to the streets of Hong Kong ahead of a national holiday on Wednesday, and they’re using a messaging app to keep in touch and defy censorship.
FireChat is a messaging app built by San Francisco-based company Open Garden, which creates products facilitating a more open, decentralized internet.
When you first download FireChat, the app doesn’t let on that it has become a hub for pro-democracy protestors around the world. Instead, the app suggests that you use it to share photos from concerts or music festivals.
After joining FireChat, you’ll see a list of suggested chat rooms, sorted by their popularity.
FireChat isn’t just about political discussion and protests in Hong Kong, it’s also frequently used to share pornography.
But once you get past the suggested groups, the app’s main menu shows that the English-language Occupy Central chat room, one of the groups used to communicate with protestors in Hong Kong, is one of the most popular parts of the app. Inside the room, people trade information on government censorship and where the protests are happening.
FireChat has become popular in Hong Kong thanks to its clever feature that uses BlueTooth to let you talk to other people without an internet connection. Since the Chinese government is clamping down on what people can say on social networks like Weibo, FireChat’s local chat groups mean that protestors can communicate without fear of censorship.
If you open up FireChat in the middle of Hong Kong, this screen wouldn’t show an empty chat. Gizmodo reports, citing a statement from Open Garden, that the app gained 100,000 new users in 22 hours, and that 33,000 users were on the app at one time. People in Hong Kong are scared that the government will try and shut off phone service, and FireChat could be the only way to keep in touch with other protestors.
FireChat is an example of a mesh network used as a communication platform. These networks work by chaining together devices, in this case with a BlueTooth connection. Linking people together in this way means that it’s impossible for a government to shut down the service, as it has no control over the hardware running it.