The rise of Firechat: is decentralisation the future of messaging, social networks and even the web?


Open Garden's mesh networking app, Firechat

Open Garden’s mesh networking app, Firechat

Messaging apps aren’t new, yet OpenGarden’s Firechat app is fast becoming a hot product. Firechat is fundamentally different to apps such as WhatsApp. It’s still a messaging app yet its technology gives it one crucial distinction that has fundamental implications for social networks and the Internet.

Firechat is the first app to make use of Apple’s multipeer connectivity framework, which in plain English lets iOS devices talk to each other over small distances without the need for wifi or 3G/4G connection. Similar technology exists for Android called peer-to-peer wifi and the latest version of the Firechat app fuses both together, increasing the potential size of this mesh network.

It’s this fusion of the technology that gives Firechat something unique. And it comes down to control. The revelations over NSA surveillance, and recent admissions that the UK government considers monitoring of UK citizens’ Facebook, Twitter and Google activity legal, have raised further concerns over privacy. This is part of a bigger debate about control of the Internet and censorship.

The role of social networks in the Arab Spring is well-documented, as is the attempt by some governments to suppress dissent on Twitter and other channels. Worries over control aren’t limited just to governments or their agencies. Many are equally troubled by the data and privacy implications of Facebook, Google, Twitter and Apple, each of whom know a phenomenal amount about each of their users.

Firechat renders worries about privacy and control moot. With sufficient users in a given location, the users themselves can create the network, using the mesh setup to bypass any form of control or censorship. In this context it’s no surprise that Firechat was the app of choice for Hong Kong’s protesters.

Whilst Firechat’s tech makes it unique among messaging apps, the idea of a decentralisation isn’t new. The combination of government intrusion, criminal activity and concerns over the excessive use of tracking by Google and Facebook are opening up the debate.

Web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee has called for a decentralised Internet. It’s a call that’s been heeded by developers such as Maidsafe. Their aim is to create exactly that: a peer-to-peer, secure version of the Internet. Many commentators see bitcoin’s technology as offering potential to create decentralised networks.

Products such as Dark Wallet, a supposedly anonymous crypto-currency wallet, take this even further, merging bitcoin transactions together to limit their traceability. Whilst this might cross the line into a product that has illegality at its heart, it is more evidence that limiting control is becoming a theme among developers. Change is afoot at the top too, with Apple’s iOS 8 beefing up its phone encryption so that content on the device can’t be accessed by law enforcement officials.

As well as challenging governments, these initiatives challenge the big social networks. The big networks need to monetise their offer, but in doing so they run the risk of alienating users. Facebook’s recent changes that serve ads and friend suggestions appear to be looking at your browsing habits rather than solely focusing on your Facebook activity. This is the explicit offer behind the latest social network, Ello. The web might be fighting back against surveillance, hacking and intrusion.

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