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Unblockable? Unstoppable? FireChat messaging app unites China and Taiwan in free speech… and it’s not pretty

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Over a week ago a messaging app for the iPhone called FireChat launched and quickly attracted attention from the international tech media. Created by Open Garden, a team of developers based out of San Francisco, the app lets users engage in anonymous group messaging by leveraging iOS7′s Multipeer Connectivity Framework which allows iPhone users to connect with each other not just via wi-fi, but through peer-to-peer connections and Bluetooth.

The app attained rapid traction around the world, likely the result widespread media coverage and a strong novelty pull – chat without the internet.  But it’s taken on a greater sense of urgency in the Chinese-speaking world – specifically in Taiwan, where it shot to the top of the App Store’s social networking charts over the weekend, surpassing reigning chat king Line.

Surpassing Line’s App Store rankings in Taiwan is no small feat, especially considering FireChat went live only eleven days ago. With over 17 million registered users within a population of about 23 million people, Line likely has its strongest market penetration in Taiwan – it even has its own museum exhibition in Taipei.

How did this little-known app come to take over Taiwan, and what does its rapid rise in the island imply about its future?

What does FireChat look like from a practical standpoint?

Before we go right into how and why Taiwan residents are using FireChat, let’s briefly explain what FireChat looks like from a practical standpoint in its current iteration.

The FireChat of March 2014 basically consists of two “group messaging modes” inside a single app. The first mode is accessible under a tab titled “Everyone,” and it’s more-or-less a circus where users are free to blabber on to anonymous strangers without the guidance of a moderator. Users are placed in a chatroom based on their geographic region, which is determined by a special algorithm. Each “Everyone” group chat is capped at 80 members, so there are likely a number of parallel chats going on in the various regions at any given time. It’s worth noting right now that the algorithm doesn’t always separate regions by country – Canada and the US are classified as the same region, so folks from Vancouver can message New Yorkers in “Everyone” mode.

In addition to “Everyone” mode, FireChat offers a “Nearby” mode. In this mode, iPhone users with FireChat installed can connected to other FireChat users not only via wi-fi, but via bluetooth or peer-to-peer networks (using Apple’s Multipeer Connectivity framework). The addition of the latter two forms of connectivity limits each user’s ‘chat-reach range’ to about 100 feet at a maximum. As a result, if you’re alone in your apartment or walking on a side street, chances are pretty high that you’ll be all alone if you check into “Nearby” mode.

Nevertheless, FireChat’s “Nearby” mode is what gets tech enthusiasts excited. As the technology grows more robust, connectivity ranges will increase. As a result, over time mobile phone users can potentially connect to one another without remaining at the mercy of an internet connection. Furthermore, while this “Nearby” chatroom, like the “Everyone” tab, is still a messy group chat, it’s possible Open Garden might roll out person-to-person chat in the future. Or, even further in the future, a single device connected to the internet might provide all nearby devices access to the internet, even if said nearby devices aren’t themselves connected to a wi-fi network.

How is FireChat relevant to Taiwan?

Since it’s basically just an anonymous group messaging app in its current iteration, FireChat remains quite rudimentary right now. As a result, upon its launch, most English-language coverage of FireChat tended to focus on hypothetical use-cases for the present – “This could be cool at a conference where there’s lousy wi-fi…” – or the future – “This could be useful in five years from now if you’re lost in the woods and need to call for help…”

But Taiwan iPhone owners didn’t have to wait for an excuse before downloading FireChat – the perfect opportunity had already arrived. Over the past several weeks students and citizens have been protesting inside and surrounding the island’s Legislative Yuan (think Parliament), voicing opposition to agreement that would loosen trade restrictions with China (and that was passed without undergoing due process in the legislature). This student movement has been dubbed the “Sunflower Movement” by domestic media and has since been adopted by the movement itself.

As an anonymous group messaging app that’s not reliant on internet connectivity, FireChat – in theory – makes an excellent tool for communicating during a political rally – especially one that might get dangerous.

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TechOrange, a leading tech blog in Taiwan, caught on to FireChat’s potential quickly. On March 24th, a piece appeared on the site’s front page with the headline (translated): “Before heading to the Legislative Yuan: in case (Taiwan President) Ma Ying-jeou cuts off internet access, download FireChat to stay connected!”

In addition, whereas most international coverage of FireChat featured a cute screenshot from Open Garden’s press kit illustrating how the app could be useful at a chummy bonfire, TechOrange posted a screenshot from “Everyone” mode showing protesters mobilizing one another.

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According metrics at the top of the post, the article has received over 24,000 shares on social media since its publication.

[Update 14:40 1 April 2014: One reader has written in noting that Taiwan authorities would be unlikely to shut down internet access as a result of the protests - and we agree. A more likely scenario that could cause internet access to malfunction would be saturated phone networks due to high activity at the site of the demonstrations. As a result, it's worth noting that the piece contained some overzealous sentiment.]

Of course, while this sort of fortuitously-timed publicity can drive downloads, actual usage is a whole other issue. Yesterday marked the first “all-in” citizen gathering in support of the movement, with over 100,000 black-clad protestors parading throughout central Taipei. A rally of that size could make an optimal test bed for measuring FireChat’s impact as tool for political organization under duress.

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Unfortunately, we’ve yet to come across any evidence suggesting FireChat served any constructive purpose during the protests – perhaps because they were quite peaceful. One participant tells Tech in Asia that when she logged on to the Nearby chat feature yesterday, it was full of “trash talking,” and didn’t exactly serve as guiding force for activists:

[There was probably nothing interesting on FireChat] because nothing really major happened over the past two days. If, for example, people had been occupying the Legislative Yuan and the government had cut off internet access, it might have been different, I guess. Right now people are just downloading it just in case they need it later. No one is using it very seriously.

Regardless of how useful FireChat has actually been for the Sunflower Movement, activity on the app remains high in Taiwan compared to most other countries. Open Garden says that the island currently ranks #3 or #4 in terms of overall activity, though it’s not clear how that data is measured. The company will not disclose figures for regional downloads.

One country, two systems, one FireChat

It ought to go without saying that discussions in the “Everyone” mode on FireChat are an absolute mess, no matter where chat participants hail from. Put 80 anonymous strangers on any online forum and it’s safe to assume that no civilized discussions will emerge.

However, what was in essence a minor oversight by the FireChat team resulted in a brief virtual unification of the Taiwan and Chinese internet – and the results wasn’t pretty. Open Garden’s algorithms classify Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China as a single region, much like the US and Canada are classified as a single region (the company tells Tech in Asia  that it didn’t consider political ambiguities for any region when choosing its algorithm). As a result, over the past weekend, “Everyone” chatrooms in FireChat were full of people from all three regions discussing – what else? – the controversial trade agreement that many Taiwanese were protesting.

As one might expect, the discussions were rife with insults and mutual resentment, with the occasional contrarian chiming in gleefully. Taiwanese referred to mainlanders as uncivilized (meiyou shuizhun), while mainlanders called for Taiwanese to “eat a tea egg” (a reference to Taiwanese people’s alleged prejudice against mainlanders). At one point, the chatroom I was observing evolved (or devolved?) in to a pretty typical debate over what it really means to be free.

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It’s extremely uncommon for Taiwanese and mainland Chinese internet users to interact in unison on a social app of this nature, especially when the topic at hand is politically sensitive. Sina Weibo (China’s Twitter-Facebook hybrid) and WeChat (China’s most popular mobile messenger) all actively remove content that deviates from the CCP’s party line. Any Taiwanese who cries out for the island’s independence on Sina Weibo will see his comments promptly scrubbed away. With the Great Firewall firmly in place and China’s censors all on deck, live, real-time, cross-border debate does not occur frequently on the Chinese-speaking internet.

FireChat and the Great Firewall

Christophe Daligault of Open Garden tells Tech in Asia that his team launched FireChat as a mere “proof of concept” app, meant to be admired if not actually used regularly.

“We thought the use cases would be people going to concerts or clubs or sports events and maybe other festivals where you may not have good connectivity,” says Daligault. “Now we’re seeing people take it into their own hands and do more.”

Has FireChat really done more for the Sunflower Movement? Thus far, no. When it comes to political mobilization, both “Nearby” and “Everyone” mode are all talk and no walk. But even so, if we view FireChat through a “proof of concept” lens, the app’s rocket adoption in Taiwan proves the concept ten times over. Want to stay connected in case the government shuts down internet access? “Nearby” mode can help.

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Meanwhile, the cross-strait debates that emerged on “Everyone” mode in greater China remind us just how powerful FireChat’s technology could grow in the future. As we mentioned before, “Everyone” mode relies on traditional wireless connectivity, not bluetooth or peer-to-peer connections. So why does “Everyone” mode exist in the first place? It’s a symbol of what “Nearby” mode could turn into. Daligault describes the overarching implications of Open Garden’s technology and FireChat as follows:

Technology moves very fast. In two years from now the range [of bluetooth and peer-to-peer connectivity] will be several hundred feet, and the second thing is that the devices will multi-hub, meaning that they have two devices that are within range and a third one might appear within range for device one but not for device two, while the third one can communicate back and forth to device two using device one as the hub.  In areas where you have enough density, you’re basically creating a whole different type of network. It doesn’t require internet or cellular coverage, it’s not managed centrally by anyone, and it’s completely resilient and self-healing. That basically creates a network that is not controlled or managed by anyone. It’s just the devices that recognize each other, and establish an ad hoc network on the fly, which is something that no government or authority would be able to control or shut down.

With this in mind, one can’t help but wonder what fate FireChat might face in mainland China. FireChat’s early days in Taiwan ought to make Chinese internet authorities quiver. Again, looking through a “proof of concept” lens, FireChat’s traction in Taiwan proves that the FireChat can help one circumvent top-down control over online communication. In addition, the debates that occurred in “Everyone” mode – silly as they may have been – represented the exact sort of dialogue that the CCP wants to keep out of China’s internet.

While FireChat caught on big in Taiwan, it doesn’t seem to have reached the same traction in mainland China. It currently ranks #102 in the social networking category in the App Store – that’s not great when compared against other countries, but it’s good enough considering the app’s about ten days old.

The Open Garden team will be the first to emphasize how its technology remains in the very early stages. FireChat will not blanket a city, let alone a country, for many years. But most readers will agree with Daligualt when he notes that technology moves very fast – those “many years” will come and go faster than we anticipate. If Open Garden’s vision for connectivity slowly comes to fruition, the going online as we know it will change for the entire world. This might bring along a whole new set of challenges for the CCP as it seeks to tighten its control over the internet.

We extend a big hat-tip to Hudson Lockett for spotting these developments.

Editing by Steven Millward, images via Flickr user billy1125



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