Hong Kong protestors set FireChat alight

The protestors for democracy in Hong Kong have found a way to route around government internet controls - ad hoc networking through FireChat.

Watching the protests in Hong Kong over the last week or so has been a nerve-wracking process. Seeing so many people participating in peaceful protest is insuring – but the memory of past crackdowns on protest by the Chinese government makes one worry.

Now, it seems that things are settling peacefully, perhaps it’s worth noting a couple of things that have made this protest note-worthy from a tech perspective. One is this breath-taking video of the scale of the protests at their height, shot from a drone:

The ability to shoot footage like this quickly and easily is transforming our understanding of mass events at this scale – because we aren’t reliant on (conflicting) eye-witness accounts to establish the numbers of people involved – we can see it for ourselves.

You might say the same of social media services, especially photo-sharing sites like Instagram. But the problem with centralised services is they’re so very easy to block:

Until this week, Instagram had largely escaped censorship in China and wasn’t seen as much of a threat to the Chinese political Establishment. (According to Hu Jia, a Chinese activist who spoke to Foreign Policy, Chinese officials “didn’t see a photo-sharing site to be as threatening as a text-based social media site.”) But after Instagram photos of the protests and messages of solidarity began gaining popularity in China, marked with hashtags like #hk and #occupycentral, authorities cracked down.

Breaching the Great Firewall of China

As the government closes down services (but not, as yet, the internet), how are the protestors communicating? FireChat – an app that creates an ad-hoc Bluetooth mesh between devices, allowing communication to happen directly without passing through – blockable – central servers:

Over the last 24 hours, FireChat has logged 800,000 on-grid sessions in Hong Kong alone, each with an average duration of 3 minutes and 35 seconds. As of 9:40 PM Hong Kong time (6:40 AM PT), there were 14,000 simultaneous Hong Kong users logged into FireChat’s on-grid chat rooms, Daligault said.

Many of those were organizing specific protests and rally points, according to Daligault. Once users actually arrive at those locations, they’re presumably linking together directly through Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. At that point their conversations disappear from FireChat’s servers.

This is a fascinating reminder that “digital” isn’t a synonym for “the internet”. The protesters are using digital tools to circumvent internet controls – and the mobile nature of the devices they’re using makes it nearly impossible to track them.

We’ve talked about FireChat before – but this is a powerful reminder of the potential of these little, smart devices in our pockets.