Mobile activism has proven to be a cornerstone of modern tactics used to hold governments and organizations accountable. Yet as we have seen multiple times across the globe in recent years, when large scale protests erupt, or governments feel threatened, the result is sometimes the shutdown of mobile networks. These events can have substantial impacts felt across the economy, services digital and physical, not to mention the obvious massive communication disruptions. Such events have even led groups to look into recognizing mobile network access as a fundamental human right.
Where there is a will, there is a way, and clever protesters in China have found a way to get around mobile network shutdowns aimed at disrupting their ability to organize protests. Just how did they manage to navigate these shutdowns to make sure their activist efforts could not be suppressed?
Let’s find out.
A Network In Your Pocket
Mobile communications are vital for activists, yet they can run into one massive problem: when the activists are actively protesting the organizations in charge of the mobile networks, this vital tool can be taken away. It doesn’t even have to be a complete mobile shutdown: technologies allow telecom companies to target specific SIM cards or towers to disable the communications of individuals or groups.
Aside from impeding communications efforts altogether, activists also live with the concern that their communications might be monitored by authorities. Yet despite all of these concerns, organization of protests and other activist activities would be impossible on the scale which it has grown to without the use of mobile devices to inform, organize, and report on the events. So how do you solve the problem of relying on these networks? The answer is to decentralize!
Mesh Networking on Mobile
Mesh Networking is a pretty simple concept which allows mobile devices to connect directly to one another to relay data, cutting out the middle-man of a centralized mobile network. Relying on the device’s WiFi or BlueTooth, mesh networks can be created between devices with a mesh networking app, which can be used to share data or communicate. Mesh networks on your mobile device aren’t very useful in your day-to-day life: they will have limited range, and the network is generally very small, not giving you access to the actual internet, instead only a small intranet of connected devices.
Yet in the event of a mobile shutdown – in the middle of a protest – suddenly this mesh networking capability becomes an activist’s best friend. We seen examples of this in Hong Kong during protests where the government interfered with mobile networks and in response over one hundred thousand people downloaded the FireChat app, a mesh networking app which allows users to create networks and chat via WiFi or BlueTooth. The app has also been put to use by activists in Taiwan where protesters utilized their own networks to combat poor mobile coverage, and in other areas where mobile access is restricted. FireChat and similar apps could even be put to use in disaster situations where mobile networks are disabled due to weather or other factors.
A Chain of Tiny Networks
The coolest thing about mesh networking can best be stated by the technical definition of a mesh network, which is that every node in the network is connected to every other node. What this means, effectively, is that a mesh network can be extended by each device in the network, enabling users to create huge mesh networks which can span large areas. Although the WiFi or BlueTooth range of individual devices might be small, the range can be extended indefinitely in theory by adding more and more devices to the network. This essential functionality is what allows activists to make use of mesh network to act as a replacement for mobile networks.
Just the Beginning
We are in the infancy of mesh networking capabilities on mobile devices. Only in iOS 7 did the functionality become available to iPhone users, and adoption of mesh networking apps on Android is still minuscule. Removing the middle man from the mobile equation could come with some potent consequences, enabling mobile devices to acquire a previously unavailable versatility.