Political unrest is rarely a positive development for Internet companies. As governments in the Middle East demonstrated repeatedly during the Arab Spring, online access is one of the first things to go when there are whiffs of an uprising.
Iraq is responding as you might expect to Islamic extremists who are threatening to break the country apart. When Iraqis recently began to experience limits on Web access — first, with blocks on social media, and then, network outages — thousands flocked to FireChat, a smartphone app that lets users in close proximity communicate freely without an Internet connection.
Since June 14, FireChat has been downloaded more than 40,000 times in Iraq, according to Open Garden, which developed the app. Before that, the app had been downloaded a total of 6,600 times there. Iraq is currently the second-most active country on the service by daily usage after the U.S. Iran, another nation familiar with Internet censorship, is ranked third.
FireChat debuted in March to hurrahs from Silicon Valley. The app hosts anonymous, public chat rooms around topics such as "Game of Thrones" or the World Cup. It's a modern take on the white-on-black Internet Relay Chat sessions that took place in many parents' basements in the 1990s.
But it's the "nearby" feature that's been getting today’s geeks so worked up. FireChat's pioneering use of "mesh networking" technology, which leverages a phone's wireless signals to communicate with other devices running the app in the vicinity, enables people to text on airplanes, cruises or subways, and could make way for a generation of apps that keeps us connected when a data network isn’t available. Largely missing from the Valley's navel-gazing was the prospect that FireChat might be adopted by people in oppressive nations seeking a way to bypass Internet censorship or blackouts.
The Financial Times reported earlier on FireChat's popularity in Iraq. The government is curbing the flow of information to impede coordination and recruitment efforts by the insurgent militant group, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Propaganda from ISIL, also known as ISIS, has popped up on Twitter and Facebook, with images playing off violent video games (“This Is Our Call of Duty. And We Respawn in Jannah”) and a motto popularized by rapper Drake (“YODO: You Only Die Once. Why Not Make It Martyrdom”), the Guardian reported yesterday.
Christophe Daligault, the vice president of sales and marketing at Open Garden, says FireChat’s usage in Iraq could be even higher than the data suggest. The San Francisco startup can’t track communication over mesh networks — presumably, the preferred method for Iraqis during the recent outages. It’s also unable to determine the source of downloads via Virtual Private Networks, another type of software used to bypass Web censorship that tends to proliferate during political strife.
Iraq banned VPNs in an expanded clampdown last week, according to Reuters. Because there isn’t an App Store in Iraq, VPNs were probably used by iPhone owners there to trick Apple’s system into thinking they’re based elsewhere, Daligault says. IPhones account for a third of FireChat users in Iraq, he says. Iraqis formed 7,000 chat rooms over a recent five-day period out of 75,000 created worldwide over the last three months.
"We're amazed that so many people in Iraq managed to find the app,” Daligault says. "We saw a jump in other countries in the Middle East, including Jordan and Egypt.”
Protesters at National Taiwan University used FireChat shortly after it debuted in March to keep connected with other students amid poor cell service, NPR reported. The Sunflower Movement helped plant the seeds for how people in urgent situations around the world can keep in touch, even while disconnected.