Hong Kong protesters use offline message apps Bridgefy and FireChat to avoid censorship

This type of offline app has a crucial role in circumventing censors - even if the authorities, too, can hop on to the network at will.

The Hong Kong protests that started months ago continue in this autonomous Chinese territory, sparked originally by an extradition law, but exposing in the meantime many problems faced by local residents when it comes to their rights online.

The unrest also highlights China's censorship. Like many other countries around the world, China wants to control the internet and impose online surveillance. What sets it apart is the efficiency with which it does this, the Great Firewall being one of the tools the country uses.

Hong Kong is not behind this digital iron curtain, meaning that it has unrestricted access to the internet. Nevertheless, its residents are becoming more and more leery of Beijing's surveillance, and are rare, showing a trend of dropping communications via text messages and the likes of China's social media giant WeChat, in favor of other solutions.

And they're radically different solutions, that don't need the internet or phone operators to function. Instead, Bridgefy, FireChat, and others that are now reportedly gaining in popularity in Hong Kong put to use the concept of mesh networking.

These “offline” peer-to-peer apps send and receive messages via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios to connect directly with another device in close proximity, and onto the next until the recipient is reached. These apps also promise that mesh network nodes in between the sender and the recipient, that is, “people in the middle,” can't access messages sent in this way. But they broadcast them even if they're not among the sender's or the recipient's contacts.

Bridgefy has seen downloads grow nearly 4,000 percent over the past two months. Both apps are said to have made dramatic progress on Apple's and Google's app stores.

Previous protests in Hong Kong, held in 2014, also saw the use of FireChat, and the same happened during unrest in the past in Iran, Iraq, and Taiwan.

This type of offline app has a crucial role in circumventing censors – even if the authorities, too, can hop on to the network at will.

Didi Rankovic

Didi Rankovic is an experienced online journalist, editor, and translator, with a career spanning over ten years writing for major a English-language website in Serbia, and previously working as translator for international organizations and peacekeepers in the Balkans. Rankovic is passionate about free and open source tech and is a head contributor for Reclaim The Net, focusing on lead stories. [email protected]