The Smartphone App Fueling Protests in Hong Kong

I spoke to one of the creators of FireChat, a smartphone app that allows users to connect to other smartphones without the use of WiFi or cellular networks.

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Oct 1 2014, 2:49pm

Protesters marching toward the home of Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung. Photo by Jeff Cheng

For whatever reason, mobile networks just aren't reliable when more than 5,000 people congregate in one specific place. Ever tried calling your friends at the end of an arena show, during a festival, or in the middle of the West Indian Day parade? Then you know exactly what I mean.

Another increasingly common gathering of this size would be a street demonstration, just like the one currently going on in Hong Kong, where hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy activists are protesting against Beijing’s involvement in the semi-autonomous state’s 2017 Chief Executive elections. But a slightly more pressing problem there is the fact that authorities have been blocking mobile networks, making it even harder for protesters to organize.       

Fortunately, alternative technology exists. On Sunday alone, over 100,000 Hong Kong accounts were created on FireChat, a clever smartphone app that manages to connect to other smartphones without the use of WiFi or cellular networks, allowing users to bypass traditional means of connectivity. The app takes the power away from governments that look to block the spread of information (it's also been used in Taiwan, Iraq, and Iran) and instead empowers those on the ground. Though, as Motherboard pointed out, it's not fully secure or protected from government surveillance.

I gave Micha Benoliel, one of the individuals behind FireChat, a call to talk about how the app is helping protesters in Hong Kong.

Micha Benoliel

VICE: Hey, Micha. Tell me about how your app is helping protesters in Hong Kong.
Micha Benoliel: People in Hong Kong are using it to exchange information on what is happening—very practical information, basically. For example, areas that are blocked, where the police are, or where people need help. It’s a very efficient way for people to coordinate and organize. The app is proving popular because there's such a large density of people gathering in Hong Kong that the cellular networks cannot work. Or, on Sunday for example, authorities shut down the networks.

Was FireChat designed to be used in this way?
We didn't create the application for that purpose. We created it to enable people to communicate during large events, such as conferences and festivals. We realized in Taiwan this year that people were using it during the Sunflower Movement. Students were using it to communicate with people inside the parliament and outside the parliament. It was a big surprise with Hong Kong, though, because while we only had a few hundred installs a few days ago, Sunday saw 100,000 account creations just for the city of Hong Kong.

A pro-democracy activist being pepper-sprayed at point blank range in Hong Kong

Wow. So I'm guessing that was all just word of mouth among activists.
It was younger students who really raised their voices. One of them, Joshua, said there might be an outage of the cellular connection, caused by the government, so everyone should use FireChat to keep communicating. 

Are governments around the world looking to control the application?
From time to time. We've seen China, for example, blocking access to our server. This is the case for many different social networks. It’s very random, so sometimes they try to, sometimes they don’t.

Have you seen the app used by other protesters outside of Hong Kong or Taiwan?
Yes, it’s also used in Iraq when the government tries to shut down access to social networks. It is broadly used and very active in Iran, and people are supporting people in Hong Kong via the app from many different places around the globe by creating groups. On Monday, we had even more installs than on Sunday.

A pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong explaining why and how protesters are using FireChat

So how are you guys looking to develop this for the future?
The app is at the beginning of its life. We're investing a lot of time to improve the user experience, even during the protest, as we want to make it easier for people to use. We're introducing accounts for opinion leaders and people with a large audience, as we don’t want misinformation to be spread.  

Can the governments you're helping people circumvent realistically hope to control the distribution of the app at all?
In Hong Kong there is nothing the government can really do. Once people have installed the application it cannot be stopped. So there's nothing that can be done. We don’t go and tell people they should protest; we help people in situations where they cannot connect. We created this application for our entertainment and we're going to improve it for everyone. It’s a new generation of social network that is far more resilient to being shut down. 

How so?
It's a decentralized network, which we believe to be the future of the internet. With FireChat’s architecture it makes it much more difficult for communications to be stopped. So we believe it's only the beginning of this new internet age. Mobiles provide the opportunity to create a new dynamic network. People can create their own local internet, and we believe that this is, if you like, the beginning of the "new internet" in this sense.

Cool, thanks Micha. Good luck with the development.

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