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FireChat Wasn’t Meant For Protests. Here’s How It Worked (Or Didn’t) at Occupy Central

BY Rebecca Chao | Friday, October 10 2014

Occupy Central is also known as the Umbrella Movement (hurtingbombz/flickr)

On September 28, the third day of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests known as Occupy Central, one of the movement’s leaders, 17-year-old Joshua Wong, posted a message on Facebook to fellow protestors asking them to download an app called FireChat in case the government decided to shut down phone and wifi connections in the protest areas of Admiralty, Wan Chai and Central.

Within the first 22 hours of Wong’s appeal, 100,000 new users downloaded the chat app, which can work offline, connecting phone-to-phone through Bluetooth when no Internet or cellular connection is available. At peak times, around 33,000 people were using FireChat simultaneously in Hong Kong. And just over a week later, even though the government never did cut off connectivity, downloads had more than quadrupled at 450,000, according to Open Garden, the company that makes FireChat. That makes Hong Kong the largest region of users percentage-wise after the United States.

The Occupy Central demonstrators are fighting for the right to select their own candidate for Hong Kong's Chief Executive, rather than having all nominees handpicked in advance by Beijing. While many tech savvy youth protestors like Wong have not yet reached voting age, they will in 2017 when the election for Hong Kong’s new leader will take place.

The protestors have used a wide array of modern and post-modern communication tools to knit their efforts together, from posters and post-its to Facebook groups, Google docs and Twitter hashtags. But the rapid adoption of FireChat has received the greatest attention in part because it is a relatively new innovation. Online security specialists have warned about its obvious weaknesses in protesting users' privacy, while other analysts, like Clay Shirky have argued that people demonstrating in the streets are worried less about personal privacy--after all, they are all photographing each other--and need free and uncensored communications much more. But so far, there's been little reporting on whether FireChat actually enables useful communications among protesters.

According to Christopher Daligault, the Chief Marketing Operator at Open Garden, a company aimed at improving mobile Internet, so far there have been 5.1 million chat sessions among users in Hong Kong. But that isn't the whole picture.

In off-grid mode, FireChat operates by connecting users one-by-one, much like a cup-and-string phone, and it is therefore impossible to know how many individuals were actually using the app offline. “We only see the visible part of the iceberg,” explains Daligault. “When people are off-the-grid we just don’t know. We don’t see how many people are connected or the messages. Nothing goes on the server.”

There are two default chat rooms available on FireChat: everyone and nearby. The former is literally everyone on the app but it refreshes each time you leave. The latter is completely off-the-grid. It allows you to connect to any person within 210 feet of you.

Over 1 million chat rooms were created in Hong Kong, says Daligault. Anyone can create or join an existing one such as Occupy Central or Mong Kok supply station, hypothetically speaking. These channels are online whenever you are connected to the Internet or wifi. But should you get cut off, or voluntarily disengage from the network, you can continue to chat with anyone within 210 feet of you. In a large setting like Occupy Central, the sheer number of people on the app will create a powerful chain reaction so that you can communicate with a friend beyond the 210-foot limit.

This tool shines when connectivity suffers from overworked networks in large gatherings like concerts and sports events, says Daligaut. It was not initially intended for political use.

A screenshot of FireChat, courtesy of an Occupier named "Eddie."

Understandably then, some protestors who might have expected much more from the app had some harsh critique. “I have heard a lot of negative feedback from a lot of users, actually,” says Mart van de Ven who organized Hong Kong's first open data hackathon last spring. “The most common word is 'useless.’” He was posted at a relatively small protest site and did not have connectivity issues. But even when it comes to off-grid capabilities, van de Ven says, “I know from guys at other sites that FireChat is almost unusable for them due to flooding and rooms being overcrowded.” One chat room can hold 10,000 users at a time and there is no search function.

Others also had good cellular connection, making FireChat redundant if not unnecessary given the more user-friendly mainstream tools like WeChat, Whatsapp and your basic social media – Twitter and Facebook. “I found that my LTE [4G] connection was pretty solid in most cases, even with tens of thousands of protesters around me,” says programmer Francis Chong who created the city’s LegCo Hansard Parser, a tool that converts PDF legislative documents into data-friendly machine-readable texts. He says, “I tried to use it and found it flooded with all kind of useless messages. No way to filter the message you need. I still have not yet figured out a good way to use it.”

High school student Ivan Ip, 18, says, not so fast. 4G LTE is fairly expensive in Hong Kong and not widely used, he explains. “4G LTE has limited data usage, like 6GB plans for about Hong Kong 400-500 Hong Kong Dollars [US$50] a month.” Particularly among the young student protestors like himself, 4G LTE is not a viable option. And the regular cellular coverage in Hong Kong gets clogged at around 9,000 to 13,000 people, says Ip. He joined the protestors after the police fired tear gas into the crowds on September 29th because some of his friends and teachers were among those hit. He joined as a supply volunteer and a developer for the Occupy Central supply website.

Ip says that FireChat’s off-grid capability proved handy when it came to relaying quick messages and small-scale organizing.

As a volunteer, Ip was among a group of roughly 60 to 120 that monitored the supply stations. He used FireChat to recruit more volunteers. While verification is an issue in the app’s anonymous chat room settings, Ip says that given the proximity needed for off-grid use, “we could meet up instantly to confirm who I was and what volunteers we wanted and to ensure they got the right information.”

FireChat was also convenient for sending out requests for more supplies. At the Mong Kok station, explains Ip, there was a need for ice to refrigerate food and water. “We sent out a shortage message through FireChat and it did work,” he says. “As a result, a lot of people tried to contact me to see how to transit the ice packs.”

In some instances, Ip says the app helped to warn protestors about approaching police and give them time to take defense if need be.

Of course, with any anonymous chat room, false information abounded. “You have rumors like the army is coming, unloading bullets,” says Daligault, grimacing. “Luckily, it was a hoax.” What this meant, however, is that “we need trusted sources,” he explains. Open Garden got to work fairly quickly, enabling verified accounts on FireChat as of yesterday. In this way, journalists or Occupy leaders can quickly send messages and users can be sure they are receiving accurate information. At this time, however, Daligault says they are only verifying journalists, with South China Morning Post’s Patrick Boehler among the first.

Finally, FireChat, which often behaves like a megaphone, was a springboard for telling others to connect to more private, low-bandwidth devices like Zello, a walkie-talkie-like phone app that is invite-only but has a one-to-many capability for group communication. In the end, the old-fashioned walkie-talkies proved extremely useful as well, says Ip, particularly for stocking supplies when connectivity was low.

Despite the small successes, Ip was upset by the amount of spam and pro-Beijing rhetoric that cluttered conversations and chat rooms. It made him feel “unsafe.” He said that trolls would relentlessly inject Ipsum, or random, garbled text into chats. Pro-Beijing users crashed Occupy chat rooms with messages like, “OccupyCentral is wasting their time, money paid on taxes and to the government, and blame us for occupying the road,” explains Ip.

"You don’t see the best display of human behaviors on FireChat," admitted Daligaut. "We fixed a bunch of problems. Users can block people and report content. We have moderators who look at reports. We try to sanitize some of the content. But with the scale of Hong Kong -- we had 100,000 downloads right away -- we saw it and thought, 'Oh wow this is going to be wild.'"

On the other hand, a 40-year-old Occupier who would like to go by the name Eddie, says that the spam and the pro-Beijing messages did not inconvenience him much. “Since Firechat has such a simple design,” he says, “other non-related messages don’t bother me.” He even noticed mainland Chinese users following protests on the app. They are distinguished by their use of simplified Chinese characters rather than the traditional ones used by those in Hong Kong.

The quality of Eddie’s experience also depended on his proximity to the center of action. “When I got close to stands or tents where a speech is being given, I found people actually using Firechat to discuss the content and the speaker's points,” he explains. “On the other hand, you actually need to ‘bump’ into the right group to join a discussion.”

Daligualt uses a similar analogy. “It’s like being at a huge party,” he says. “You float from group to group and listen in. Eventually you find a group that is interesting. Or you can create your own. People can click on the link to get into the chat room if you post it onto Twitter.” In fact, Daligault likes to compare the open and public nature of FireChat to Twitter and the chat rooms to hashtags. Essentially, in online mode, everyone can see anyone’s posts. He stresses this point since one of the most common complaints of FireChat is that it is not private enough.

Open Garden CEO Mischa Benoliel, who happened to be in Hong Kong when the protests began, had an opportunity to ask protestors directly what they thought about the app. The most common complaint was the lack of private encrypted messaging, which Open Garden is now working on. It will take several months to complete, however.

What protesters need to know is that currently, FireChat is most effective in very specific conditions, such as a high density group of people with one purpose, says Daligault. "Then it is wonderful, whether it’s Tehran or New York.”

The app may get tested again soon as students threaten a huge rally after the Hong Kong government canceled talks yesterday with student leaders.