The internet may be vulnerable to state intervention, but demonstrators in Hong Kong have found a way around it to stay connected to each other.
As pro-democracy rallies rage in the territory, protestors are increasingly giving up on SMS, emails and China’s social media Swiss army knife WeChat in favor of peer-to-peer mesh networking apps like Bridgefy and FireChat.
With the government keeping a close eye on social networks — homegrown and elsewhere — in an attempt to stifle dissent, these off-the-grid messaging apps have proven to be a blessing in disguise.
Both apps work without the internet or traditional phone services. Users on the platform, instead, rely on short-range communication protocols like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios in the phone to communicate directly with other devices within 200ft – 330ft (60m – 100m) that are also running Bridgefy or FireChat.
To chat over longer distances, your messages simply jump between nearby users — creating a mesh network — until it reaches the intended target. What’s more, “the people in the middle don’t have access to your messages, have to perform any action whatsoever, or have to be in your contacts list.”
Based on statistics from Apptrace, Bridgefy’s ranking on Apple’s App Store climbed from #973 in late June to #6 as of September 1. It has a similar jump on Android, where the app is positioned at #2. On the other hand, FireChat’s ranking on iOS and Android is in the 50’s — a big increase from below 300 levels before June.
Daisy-chain in the time of protests
The recent wave of anti-government protests in Hong Kong — which began in early June — were sparked by a bill (since suspended, but not withdrawn) that would allow people accused of crimes against mainland China to be extradited.
While the former British colony enjoys a special status that grants people rights and freedom not seen in the mainland, the move has attracted criticism because of potential concerns that China is tightening its grip over the region.
In addition to undermining Hong Kong‘s judicial independence, the proposal could also have been used to target civilians who speak out against the Chinese government.
As a result, the protesters want Hong Kong authorities to formally withdraw the now-abandoned extradition bill, set up an inquiry commission to investigate police brutality in tackling the protests, exonerate those who have been arrested during previous protests, and stop characterizing the June protests as “riots.”
The situation, at present, has evolved beyond the initial scope to protest against the erosion of the special freedoms in Hong Kong.
Although there is nothing to stop the authorities from hopping on to the network as well, this is not the first time the apps have played a crucial role in circumventing censorship.
FireChat has already been used in protests in Taiwan, Iran and Iraq, and even Hong Kong back in 2014 to rally against China’s limitation of voter rights.
Messaging app Telegram, for its part, is said to be rolling out a new group chat feature to safeguard protesters’ identities from being discovered by officials in mainland China and Hong Kong.
While these upswings may be a repeated trend, the apps’ purpose as a giant megaphone hasn’t gone unnoticed. “People are using it to organize themselves and to stay safe, without having to depend on an Internet connection,” Bridgefy CEO Jorge Rios told Forbes.