iOS Chat App an Unlikely Hero for Protest and Free Speech

FireChat Logo

FireChat is an app for iOS that uses mesh networking to provide its users with something a little different—Internet chat that doesn’t require the Internet.

The app has found a rather unlikely foothold in Taiwan as of late, where both of its standout features are being put to test in ways that the San Francisco-based development team probably never imagined.

As you can see in this screen grab, there are two modes for chat:

FireChat Tabs

“Nearby” shows where FireChat gets its name—imagine a group of friends sitting around a camp fire IM-ing each other and you get the idea. Why wouldn’t they just talk face-to-face? Good question; a concert or trade show is probably a better use-case.

“Everyone” dumps the user into a public forum with other FireChat users from the same geographic region.

And again, both these modes enable chat without the Internet. This is apparently made possible by the Multipeer Connectivity Framework exclusive to iOS7.

So what does this have to do with Taiwan?

1. Protests

The Sunflower Student Movement is an ongoing demonstration in Taiwan against that country’s planned closer trade ties with China. I’m likely oversimplifying things here; for the long answer you can check out this reddit AMA with the protesters, or for a more concise explanation watch this video from China Uncensored:

It should be noted that China Uncensored is produced by NDTTV, which is itself funded by the Falun Gong—so expect some strong anti-China bias here. But since it’s an anti-China protest we’re talking about anyway, I think it’s an appropriate source.

A Taiwanese tech blog saw the potential of FireChat for protesters, and posted this announcement:

Before heading to the Legislative Yuan: in case (Taiwan President) Ma Ying-jeou cuts off internet access, download FireChat to stay connected! [translation courtesy of Tech in Asia]

There is as of yet no Internet shutdown in Taiwan, but the threat alone got a lot of students to install FireChat on their phones.

2. Free Speech

Here’s where FireChat’s “Everyone” mode comes into play…

Because the app uses peer-to-peer connectivity instead of the Internet proper, The Great Firewall of China is effectively bypassed. And since mainland China is in the same geographic region as Taiwan, guess who Chinese and Taiwanese FireChat users found themselves talking to in the “Everyone” tab?

Yup, each other.

FireChat Everyone Tab

These translated screen grabs from Tech in Asia show something rarely, if ever, seen in this part of the world. Chinese Internet services like Sina Weibo and WeChat are monitored and censored by the Chinese government; what we have here is an entirely unmoderated exchange of ideas from both sides of the Great Firewall.

Politics aside, I think it’s pretty cool that an app could be useful in ways far beyond what its makers thought possible. It’s certainly a striking example of how technology can empower its users.

Let’s hope that the Android version of FireChat isn’t too far off… 😉