Open Garden's off-network FireChat app catches on during Hong Kong protests

Pro-democracy protests are making FireChat a household name among dissidents in Hong Kong, many of whom have been downloading and using the network-free communications app from San Francisco-based Open Garden.

The Wall Street Journal Digits blog reported that the FireChat app was downloaded 100,000 times in Hong Kong between the morning of Sept. 28 and the morning of Sept. 29. On Sept. 30, GigaOM subsequently reported that number had doubled, with the app having been downloaded 200,000 times in Hong Kong during the previous two days.

This isn't the first time that political unrest has boosted FireChat's popularity. Micha Benoliel, co-founder and CEO of Open Garden, told the blog that FireChat was used by students in Taiwan during their anti-Beijing Sunflower Movement protests last spring. And Bloomberg reported back in June that FireChat was being downloaded by Iraqis as the Iraq government began limiting Web access after the nation came under attack from ISIS.

Open Garden released its FireChat app in March, enabling Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) iPhones to leverage the Apple Multipeer Connectivity framework to link directly via Bluetooth personal area networks (PANs), peer-to-peer Wi-Fi or a traditional Wi-Fi network, obviating the need for access to a cellular network. A few weeks later, Open Garden released a version of the app for Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) Android OS, expanding the reach of FireChat's off-the-grid communications links.

Open Garden CMO Christophe Daligault told the Los Angeles Times that about 30 percent of this week's downloads in Hong Kong have been from the Apple App Store and 70 percent from Google Play.

FireChat's mesh networking function allows users to relay messages from device to device, expanding the overall network's reach beyond immediate PAN or Wi-Fi coverage areas. The more FireChat users there are in a given geographic area, the wider the app's reach becomes in that area. Further, FireChat only identifies users by their username, which they can change on the fly, giving users the cloak of anonymity.

FireChat has come in handy in Hong Kong's protest zones, where cellular networks have become congested as throngs of protesters try to communicate and upload information to social media. Though authorities in Hong Kong have so far not blocked Internet access during the protests, 17-year-old student leader Joshua Wong encouraged his followers on Twitter and Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) to download FireChat in case there is a shutdown of cellular networks in Hong Kong.

However, one drawback to FireChat is the ease with which it can be used to spread disinformation. In an interview with GigaOM, Daligault said he saw posts in FireChat's chatrooms that incorrectly reported that Hong Kong police had started firing real bullets and that the Chinese Army was descending on protest centers with assault rifles. Open Garden has no way of knowing exactly who posted those messages, meaning they might have been written by Chinese authorities rather than protesters.

Daligault said Open Garden will tackle that problem by introducing a verified identity program in about three to four weeks. Under the program, a person can link their real name to their FireChat user name, though that will obscure one of FireChat users' favorite features--anonymity. The company also plans a private chatroom feature for FireChat that will use an encrypted channel, but that is seen as a long-term project.

For more:
- see this Wall Street Journal article (sub. req.) and video
- see this Los Angeles Times article
- see this GigaOM article

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