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29 April 2024

FireChat was a tool for revolution. Then it disappeared.

For years, FireChat helped people circumvent their internet gatekeepers— the authoritarian governments and spineless corporations that control our every move through a network of proprietary data centers and deep-sea cables.

In Iran, forty thousand people downloaded the app when their government blocked internet access. Over one hundred thousand protesters in Hong Kong used the app to coordinate their resistance against Chinese authority. Singaporeans, Indians, Ecuadorians, Russians, and seemingly every pro-democracy movement globally took advantage of the off-grid messaging app.

What made FireChat an effective tool for revolution was its ability to bypass the centralized and often monopolized Internet Service Providers. Launched in 2011 by Open Garden, FireChat allowed people to communicate without an Internet connection. The mobile app cleverly leveraged Bluetooth and WiFi signals already emitting from our phones to create peer-to-peer connections known as a mesh network.

In 2014, after Hong Kong protesters demonstrated to the world how effective a tool it was, news blogs quickly pointed out that FireChat messages were not secure. By 2015, Open Garden updated the app to include end-to-end encryption, a feature that many modern messaging apps still lack today.

In 2015, Wired called FireChat a "Giant Network of Free Messaging.” Indeed, but it was so much more. The mesh network enabled by FireChat was a new internet by the people, literally. The larger the crowd, the better the technology worked, as messages would "bounce” from phone to phone until they reached their recipient.

Firechat updates as 40,000 Iraqis download 'mesh' chat app in censored Baghdad:

"Your phone today, your smartphone, not only has a radio to connect to a cell tower, but it also has other radios, like WiFi or Bluetooth, to connect to other devices around," explains OpenGarden co-founder Micha Benoliel. "And when smartphones are next to each other with Firechat, they directly interconnect."

The technology worked so well that Open Garden then released FireChat Alerts, allowing rescue workers to send offline messages during emergencies.

Mind you, all of this was happening off-grid, without mega corporations mining our data or governments spying through corporate-sanctioned back doors. Then, one day in February 2020, as COVID-19 swept the globe, access to FireChat was completely cut off without explanation.

Four months later, a police officer murdered a Black man in Minnesota, resulting in protests across the United States. Those protests sparked a roaring fire of consciousness over this country's injustices. But no one on the ground fighting for our rights has been able to use the people's internet that never was.

Today, if you go to the official FireChat website, you're greeted hostilely with a message that your IP address has been blocked for suspicious activity. The Internet Archive view of the site shows the same message, so don't feel too bad. The Open Garden website shows a similar, though admittedly less hostile-feeling 403 Forbidden error.

No acquisition announcement for FireChat can be found. No teary-eyed "it's been an incredible journey” open letter by its founders was ever published. FireChat, and then later its parent company Open Garden, closed for business without any acknowledgment.

Without any information, it's hard to say why FireChat disappeared. If pressed about it, someone somewhere has a carefully constructed story with a plausible explanation, I'm sure. However, by all accounts, FireChat's mesh network technology was greater than the sum of its users. It was freedom from a ruthlessly for-profit internet that has increasingly become more centralized and monopolistic. And the fact that no one seems to have anything to say about this once darling of Silicon Valley tells us all we need to know.

FireChat is gone because FireChat was a threat to the systems it circumvented.


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