By Hannah Kuchler in San Francisco and Simeon Kerr in Baghdad
A new chat app designed for use on planes and trains is soaring in popularity in Iraq, as users embrace a “private internet” where they can message each other without fear of the government shutting down access to the web.
Created on an island in San Francisco Bay, FireChat has been rapidly adopted in the war-torn country as the government restricts access to the internet.
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Iraq, where fighting continued over the weekend with security forces claiming to have killed dozens of insurgents, is now the second-largest user of the app after the US.
FireChat, developed by start-up Open Garden, allows access to messaging where getting on the internet is difficult, most prominently where governments are trying to control dissent by forcing people offline.
The app features “mesh networking” technology that uses Bluetooth to send messages from smartphone to smartphone, leapfrogging over other FireChat users’ phones to extend the distances that chats can travel. If one user is connected to the internet, everyone in the vicinity can also use that connection to browse.
Christophe Daligault, vice-president of sales and marketing at Open Garden, said it was “literally growing your own internet”. He said the last week had seen a “very big jump” in Iraq, with 40,000 downloads despite there being no Apple app store in the country.
“We’re amazed that so many people in Iraq managed to find the app,” he said. “There are enough users of FireChat in Baghdad now to create many local ‘intranets’. Even if no device in this local network has access to the internet, people can still exchange messages.”
FireChat was originally developed as a way for people to communicate in areas with poor mobile phone reception, such as underground trains. Its anonymous chat rooms are used in the US to discuss a range of topics, with the most popular FireChat about the TV series Game of Thrones.
But after its launch three months ago, it quickly gained ground in countries where the internet was blocked. Some 7,000 chat rooms were created in Iraq in the past five days, out of a total of 75,000 worldwide since the app’s launch.
Iraqi users of FireChat say the service has become popular since the government started to block social media since the Sunni militant insurgency swept through northern Iraq.
Mohammed, a Baghdad resident living in the hotly contested province of Diyala in eastern Iraq, used the service to tell of the bad situation in his area of the country, where government forces and Isis militants have been clashing for control. Mohammed was using the service to chat to other mainly Arab users from Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Ali said he was trying out FireChat because it had not yet been blocked by the authorities. The Baghdad resident said some Iraqis were still accessing sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube via virtual private networks. “We have our ways,” he said via the FireChat service. Those roaming via international telephone services can also reach social media via smartphones.
But other users contacted by the Financial Times said they were not using the Bluetooth technology as it is limited to a distance of 70m, unless there are other users to leapfrog over in between.
Iran is the third-largest country for the app, with a rash of downloads last month when the government prevented residents from using WhatsApp, the messaging app recently bought by Facebook.
With just $2m in seed funding from angel investors including Japan’s Digital Garage, Open Garden illustrates how apps can become global businesses with little outside funding. The start-up plans to generate revenue by charging other services a cut of their profits for the extra time their users are online.