Sit In Protest Continues In Hong Kong Despite Chief Executive's Calls To Withdraw
A protester waves her cell phone in the air outside the Hong Kong Government Complexon October 1, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong. Chris McGrath—Getty Images

Hong Kong's Protesters Don't Need the Internet to Chat With One Another

Oct 01, 2014

If you've ever been crammed into a stadium alongside thousands of screaming football or music fans, you already know what the tens of thousands of demonstrators pouring into Hong Kong this week are learning: when you pack that many people into a tiny area, your phone's Internet grinds to a halt.

Smartphones should make it easier to organize protests, but they're as good as bricks when cell towers get overloaded with traffic or when governments decide to flip the switch. Hong Kong has seen both of these happen: Thousands of people on the street means mobile Internet is useless in packed areas, while Chinese authorities are blocking Instagram on the mainland, favored by Chinese dissidents because it was one of the few social networks not blocked in the country.

In the face of these hang-ups, Hong Kong's demonstrators have turned to FireChat, a smartphone app that allows users to communicate even when they can't get online or send texts. Unlike chat programs that work over the Internet, FireChat connects directly to other nearby users within up to about 250 ft. More people in range can then join the chat, extending the network even further. Pretty soon you can get up to a few thousand people chatting away, all without anybody connected to the Internet.

FireChat is based on mesh networking, in which every device on a network works as a node for expanding that network. The idea's been around for decades, now popular as a way to communicate during disasters like hurricanes. But Hong Kong shows it's useful during civil disobedience too. Some 200,000 people there downloaded the app between Sunday and Tuesday, says Micha Benoliel, CEO of Open Garden, the company behind FireChat, sending it skyrocketing to the top of the region's app-store charts.

Speaking from Hong Kong, Benoliel tells TIME that FireChat's sudden popularity there isn't a "complete surprise" because it was also popular with Taiwanese protesters last March. It's also the latest in a long line of technologies that helped fuel wide-scale protests. Iran's 2009 Green Revolution was dubbed the Twitter Revolution, thanks to protesters' penchant for organizing via Twitter, likewise 2011's Occupy Wall Street was a hashtag before it was a street protest. Facebook and YouTube, meanwhile, have brought us to the front lines of the Arab Spring and Syria's long-fought civil war, even being used as recruiting tools by antigovernment rebels and jihadist groups. Where Twitter, Facebook and YouTube all fall short, however, lies in their need for an Internet connection to work — not the case for FireChat.

Still, FireChat isn't perfect for protesters. The chat rooms are open, making it easy for a first-timer to join — but that first-timer could also be a local authority poking around at the goings-on. However, Benoliel says the company is working on protester-minded updates like private messaging and encryption, as Open Garden advocates for "freedom of speech and access to information."

"If this application can help in this way, it's very aligned with the mission of the company," Benoliel says. "[FireChat] hasn't been built for that purpose, but if it can help people in that situation, we are very supportive of what's happening here in Hong Kong."

Photographs of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Protesters sit behind a government building as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Protesters sit behind a government building as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.Paula Bronstein—Getty Images
Protesters sit behind a government building as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Protesters walk along the protest site on a quiet night as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
A pro-democracy protester sleeps on a concrete road divider on a street outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
People try to prevent a man from removing a barricade set up by pro-democracy protesters blocking a main road at Hong Kong's shopping Mongkok district Oct. 4, 2014.
Policemen try to get a man to let go of a fence guarded by pro-democracy demonstrators in an occupied area of Hong Kong on Oct. 3, 2014.
A local resident breaks through police lines and attempts to reach the pro-democracy tent on Oct. 3, 2014 in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.
A student protester is injured after being pulled off and hit by residents and pro-Beijing supporters while local police are escorting him out of the protest area in Kowloon's crowded Mong Kok district, Oct. 3, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Students and pro-democracy activists leave the protest site as local police hold back local residents and pro-government supporters on Oct. 3, 2014 in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.
A man walks past a barricade as protesters continue to block areas outside the government headquarters building in Hong Kong, Oct. 3, 2014.
Pro-democracy demonstration in Hong Kong, Sept. 3, 2014.
Student protesters raise their hands to show their non-violent intentions as they resist during change of shift for local police but backed down after being reassured they could reoccupy the pavement outside the government compoundís gate, Oct. 2, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Police stand guard outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on Oct. 2, 2014, as pro-democracy protesters remain gathered for the fifth day in a push for free elections of the city's leader.
A taxi driver gives a thumbs up to pro-democracy protesters as he drives past the protest site in front of Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's office, Oct. 3, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Protesters sleep on the road outside the Police Headquarters building on Oct. 2, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Students from various universities continue their protest in the streets of Hong Kong, Oct. 1, 2014.
A protester holding an umbrella stands on the street close to the Hong Kong Government Complexon Oct. 1, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Joshua Wong, leader of the student movement, delivers a speech as protesters block the main street to the financial Central district, outside the government headquarters building in Hong Kong Oct. 1, 2014.
Protesters react as Joshua Wong, leader of the student movement, speaks to the crowd outside the government headquarters building in Hong Kong Oct. 1, 2014.
Tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators, some waving lights from mobile phones, fill the streets in the main finical district of Hong Kong, Oct. 1, 2014.
A protester sleeps on the streets outside the Hong Kong Government Complex at sunrise on Sept. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy demonstrators rest during a protest in Hong Kong on Sept. 30, 2014.
Protesters relax on the streets outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Sept. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
A pro-democracy protestor speaks to the crowd in front of the government offices in Hong Kong on Sept. 30, 2014.
A couple wearing protective masks and ponchos walk through Admiralty district as part of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong on Sept. 30, 2014.
Protesters sing songs and wave their cell phones in the air after a massive thunderstorm passed over outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Sept. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy demonstrators gather for the third night in Hong Kong on Sept. 30, 2014.
A businessman stands in front of a road block set up by protesters at the main street of the financial Central district in Hong Kong Sept. 29, 2014.
A protester raises his arms as police officers try to disperse the crowd near the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Sept. 29, 2014.
Umbrellas used to shield demonstrators from pepper spray and the sun are displayed during a pro-democracy protest near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 29, 2014.
Residents on scooters bring supplies to protesters camped outside the headquarters of Legislative Council during protests in Hong Kong on Sept. 29, 2014.
Police walk down a stairwell as pro-democracy demonstrators gather for a rally outside the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 29, 2014.
Protesters gather in the streets outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Sept. 29, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy demonstrators hold up their mobile phones during a protest near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 29, 2014.
Pro-democracy demonstrators are sprayed with pepper spray during clashes with police officers during a rally near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.
A pro-democracy demonstrator wearing a mask and goggles to protect against pepper spray and tear gas gestures during a rally near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.
Riot police launch tear gas into the crowd as thousands of protesters surround the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Sept. 28, 2014.
A protester walks in tear gas fired by riot policemen after thousands of protesters blocking the main street to the financial Central district outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Sept. 28, 2014.
A pro-democracy protester confronts the police during a demonstration in Hong Kong on Sept. 28, 2014.
Pro-democracy protesters demonstrate in Hong Kong on Sept. 28, 2014.
Policemen confronts protesters in Hong Kong during a demonstration on Sept. 28, 2014.
Riot police fire tear gas on student protesters occupying streets surrounding the government headquarters in Hong Kong, early on Sept. 29, 2014.
A pro-democracy demonstrator pours water over a man's face after police fired tear gas at protesters during a rally near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.
Pro-democracy protesters put their hands up in the air in front of the police in Hong Kong on Sept. 28, 2014.
Some of the protesters sleep as they block the main street to the financial Central district outside the government headquarters, with other demonstrators in Hong Kong, Sept, 29, 2014.
Policemen rest following pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong on Sept. 29, 2014.
Protesters sit behind a government building as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Paula Bronstein—Getty Images
1 of 45
All products and services featured are based solely on editorial selection. TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.