Hundreds of thousands of people in Hong Kong are taking to the streets to fight for pro-democracy reform. The protests began over the weekend and continued through October 1st, the 65th anniversary of Communist rule in China. Fears of the Chinese government shutting down internet and cell service has resulted in protesters looking for alternative messaging apps. Firechat is one such app and has received over 200,000 downloads over two days, propelling it to the number one downloaded app in Hong Kong in both the App Store and Google Play.
What makes Firechat uniquely suited to the protests in Hong Kong is its ability to connect people using only Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. This means if the Chinese government does take down the internet and cell service, Firechat will still allow protesters to communicate with one another, completely off the grid.
All you need is someone’s username to chat directly with them. Although the Chinese government hasn’t taken down cellular networks in Hong Kong, protesters are reporting that connections are slow, possibly due to the high concentration of users in the area.
Furthermore, Firechat allows users to communicate anonymously, which is perfect for protesters who are avoiding giving out personally identifiable information in fear of police retribution.
By using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to directly connect users, Firechat gets rid of any middle-man that may be snooping. With traditional messaging apps, messages are sent and stored on a company’s servers before making it to the recipient.
Firechat is more than just a direct line of communication for protesters. It also hosts “Firechats,” which are basically discussion boards for different topics. While there’s a ton of noise in the app, there are some serious groups that are showing solidarity with Hong Kong protesters. Many of Firechat’s users are using the app to get first hand accounts from protesters in Hong Kong.
Firechat developer Open Garden says it is seeing up to 20,000 concurrent users in Hong Kong, but this number only accounts for users who are online. There’s no way for Open Garden to track users who are using the app completely off the grid.
This isn’t the first time Firechat has seen an uptick in users. Many Iranians downloaded the app in May when WhatsApp and Instagram were blocked by the government. In March, Taiwan’s Sunflower student movement saw huge adoption of Firechat, but Hong Kong’s protests are already providing twenty-five times that traffic.
For more information about the protests in Hong Kong, check out Vox’s two minute explanation.
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