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One Messaging App, Internet Optional. And Hold The Censorship, Please.

BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, April 2 2014


Since its launch less than two weeks ago, FireChat has been called a SnapChat and Whisper hybrid or something between SnapChat and Chatroulette. Even more astounding, in Taiwan—where FireChat toppled reigning messaging app Line from its place as number one social networking app in the App Store—thousands of participants in the Sunflower Movement have been encouraged to download the app as a means of communication during protests against a controversial trade agreement with mainland China. Bonus: FireChat is also facilitating unmediated conversations between Taiwanese and mainland Chinese users.

How is this all possible? Because FireChat takes advantage of an iOS7 feature, the Multipeer Connectivity Framework, which can connect iPhone users directly, without a wifi or cellular connection, as long as they are near each other. Wired says it “will change the way we connect.” TechOrange, a popular tech blog in Taiwan, says download before you head off to the next protest.

More precisely, a TechOrange post on March 24 said: “Before heading to the Legislative Yuan: in case (Taiwan President) Ma Ying-jeou cuts off internet access, download FireChat to stay connected!” [translation via Tech in Asia].

Although Tech in Asia did not find that FireChat “served any constructive purpose during the protest” the potential is certainly there. And, they add, the protests were mostly peaceful. Perhaps a new mass mobilization and communication tool is simply not necessary to the Sunflower Movement right now.

FireChat operates in two modes: “Everyone” and “Nearby.”

The default is “Everyone”—a chat room with 80 anonymous people from your geographic region—say, the United States and Canada, or Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China. This is the mode allowing Taiwanese and Chinese users to have unmediated, albeit predictably messy and uncivilized, conversations with each other.

According to Tech in Asia's Josh Horwitz:

It’s extremely uncommon for Taiwanese and mainland Chinese internet users to interact in unison on a social app of this nature, especially when the topic at hand is politically sensitive...Any Taiwanese who cries out for the island’s independence on Sina Weibo will see his comments promptly scrubbed away. With the Great Firewall firmly in place and China’s censors all on deck, live, real-time, cross-border debate does not occur frequently on the Chinese-speaking internet.

So that's pretty cool, even if anonymous chat rooms—as Horwitz points out—tend to suck, but you still need to be connected to wifi to join the “Everyone” chat room.

Not so when you enter the second mode, “Nearby,” which relies on peer to peer connections. This was the reason for building FireChat, a “proof of concept” for the utility of peer to peer connections and mesh networks, as Christophe Daligault of Open Garden explained to both Tech in Asia and CNET.

Another advantage, especially for those wishing to avoid the all-seeing eyes of their governments and/or service providers: when in "Nearby" mode data never passes through a central server and is stored only on the devices involved, and deleted once the user exits the app.

TechPresident reached out to the Open Garden Foundation, the organization behind FireChat, to learn more about the functional security of FireChat, an important consideration if people decide it is an important tool for political protesters.

The bottom line, Open Garden Technology Evangelist Jenny Ryan told techPresident, is that FireChat is subject to the associated risks of the device it is used on (iPhone or iPod) and the network it is connected to.

Ryan writes: “In its current, early iteration, it is purely a tool for indiscriminate broadcasting. Thus, messages sent in Nearby mode are routed over Bluetooth or P2P WiFi and subject to the risks associated with these protocols.”

So, while the tool is perfect for situations characterized by low connectivity—during or after a natural disaster, for example—use with caution in politically hostile or dangerous environments.

Not that it doesn't have its advantages, if you put the issue of safety to the side. Ryan explains: “Because devices are talking directly to each other, rather than routing messages through a centralized server, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a government to censor or control the ad-hoc networks created by devices using FireChat.”

But I'm sure plenty of authoritarian governments will try.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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