Something remarkable is happening in Hong Kong. I'm not just talking about the (mostly) peaceful protests that have led Chinese officials to at least engage in discussions about letting Hong Kong voters choose their own candidates for the 2017 election. I'm also talking about the revolutionary role technology has played in the protests.
We're used to hearing about Twitter and Facebook being the organizing tools of choice for protests around the world. But what happens when you're protesting in a place like China where the government stands ready to shut down Internet services or block social networking web sites?
Entrepreneurship finds a way. In Hong Kong, protestors turned to FireChat, an app that allows users to communicate without relying on the Internet. The app was downloaded more than 200,000 times during the heat of the protests. FireChat uses Bluetooth and cellular networks to create a "mesh network" linking the phones together. It gave protestors the ability to talk to each other and organize in a way that the government couldn't shut down.
"[FireChat] allows for an efficient use of bandwidth," says Jamie Daves, CEO of Halio Health, a company that offers health care providers web and mobile-based solutions. "Oftentimes, the uses that make the network work more efficiently are also uses that can help people avoid monitoring."
America is not China. For the most part, our government tolerates peaceful protests -- and barring a few notable exceptions -- citizens can feel fairly confident that their Internet or cell service isn't suddenly going to be shut down during a protest.
But it's a very different story in much of the rest of the world. During the green wave protests in Iran in 2009 following the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian government temporarily restricted Internet access, disabled text messaging, and blocked access to some websites. And later, as the Arab Spring swept across Egypt, the Mubarak government first sent mass text messages to supporters, and later moved to shut down the country's mobile data and Internet service.
Governments around the world will continue to try and make life difficult for protestors, but it's a problem technology can overcome. Telerivet is another service that lets large groups of people communicate via mobile. Telerivet uses the SMS texting system to help organizations in the developing world communicate with customers, but it's also being used to help people stay in touch during large events.
"When one communication medium is blocked in a place like China or Russia, another inevitably pops up," says Josh Stern, CEO of Telerivet.
FireChat wasn't designed with protests in mind. Instead, it was created to help people stay in touch at concerts or other large events. And while I worry about things like the cell phone kill switch, which will give the government an easy way to shut down a powerful form of communication, the fact that protestors in Hong Kong found FireChat gives me hope that ultimately, technology will help freedom prevail.