New app unites Taiwan, Hong Kong and China in free speech

By Rebecca Unsworth, April 2, 2014

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A new anonymous messaging app which allows users to go online even without reception, has rocketed in popularity, and provided a platform for Taiwanese protests about a China trade pact. The app, Firechat, has surpassed Line to become Taiwan's most popular app in just 11 days since going live- no easy accomplishment when Line has 17 million users in a population of about 23 million.

Firechat, created by Open Garden, provides a way of connecting to those nearby even without an internet connection through manipulating the Multipeer Connectivity Framework in iOS 7.0, by using bluetooth or peer-to-peer connections. According to Gizmodo: 

In effect, FireChat creates a small mesh network for local users. Instead of transmitting data through a cellular signal or by connecting to the internet, the app actually creates its own mini-internet where each mobile device is its own node. This is also known as a mesh network, and it's possible thanks to a new feature that arrived with iOS 7, called the Multipeer Connectivity Framework. This is great for wannabe spies, because it effectively lets you communicate off the grid.

This has also been good news for the "Sunflower Movement" in Taiwan, a group of students who are protesting the government's push for a relaxed trade pact with China. Firechat works with two different settings- "everyone" mode and "nearby" mode. "Everyone" mode places complete strangers based on geographical regions into different chatrooms, with each chatroom being capped at 80. "Nearby" mode allows you to connect with people who are within a blue tooth range, about 30 ft away.

According to Tech in Asia, "TechOrange, a leading tech blog in Taiwan, caught on to FireChat’s potential quickly. On March 24th, a piece appeared on the site’s front page with the headline (translated): “Before heading to the Legislative Yuan: in case (Taiwan President) Ma Ying-jeou cuts off internet access, download FireChat to stay connected!”".

The site then posted an image of an "everyone" conversation between members of the Sunflower Movement mobilising each other, with messages including "I'm at the Legislative Yuan, here at Jinnan Road", "Go, go!", "Take care everyone!".

"Everyone" mode also allowed residents in Taiwan, mainland China and Hong Kong (grouped together in the same region) to chat together in groups over the weekend in an extremely rare situation- causing arguments that were rife with insults and arguments about the trade protests. At some points conversations evolved into questions along the lines of what it means to be free- issues that would be immediately scrubbed away by online government censors if put online.

So what does FireChat mean for the "Sunflower Movement", free protests, and the three regions' inter-communications? At the moment, not that much according to Tech in Asia. "When it comes to political mobilization, both “Nearby” and “Everyone” mode are all talk and no walk. But even so, if we view FireChat through a “proof of concept” lens, the app’s rocket adoption in Taiwan proves the concept ten times over. Want to stay connected in case the government shuts down internet access? “Nearby” mode can help" the website said.

The Open Garden team insist that their technology is only in its early days and Firechat provides an idea of what could happen to internet in the future if their technology continues to develop. Daligaut describes the implications:

Technology moves very fast. In two years from now the range [of bluetooth and peer-to-peer connectivity] will be several hundred feet, and the second thing is that the devices will multi-hub, meaning that they have two devices that are within range and a third one might appear within range for device one but not for device two, while the third one can communicate back and forth to device two using device one as the hub.  In areas where you have enough density, you’re basically creating a whole different type of network. It doesn’t require internet or cellular coverage, it’s not managed centrally by anyone, and it’s completely resilient and self-healing. That basically creates a network that is not controlled or managed by anyone. It’s just the devices that recognize each other, and establish an ad hoc network on the fly, which is something that no government or authority would be able to control or shut down.

So China's Great Firewall might be in for some trouble in the future. The mainland can breathe easy for a while though - currently, the app only ranks at #102 most popular social networking in the App Store.

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