The Firechat app has recently played a huge role in organizing political protests in Hong Kong. It has been downloaded 4 million times from one Chinese app store alone, and for good reason. The Firechat app does not function in the same way as mobile phone networks, but instead each phone running the app acts as a node in a mesh network. Messages pass from node to node, not through a centralized service, so they cannot easily be blocked by the government.
Mesh networks such as Firechat take advantage of peer-to-peer networking, allowing mobile devices to communicate directly with each other rather than through base stations. Over recent years, this model has proven particularly useful for bringing low-cost Internet to areas that are not well provided for. It also has benefits including lower costs and higher performance.
Firechat’s mesh networking has been used to the advantage of protestors, but the app also has its limitations. Firechat allows three different types of messaging, all of which are highly open in nature. Nearby users are all part of the same conversation, bringing up issues with privacy and anonymity. Developers of the app have said it is not a tool for communicating sensitive information.
Firechat is not a perfect app, but it is playing an important role in ensuring the Internet remains democratized and cannot be switched off by those in a position of power to silence the people.