Iraqis are using three-month old messaging app Firechat to circumvent a government block on access to social media sites amid growing armed conflict in the country.
The government imposed the block after Islamist insurgents used Twitter to post an image of a beheaded man, and to spread propaganda messages.
Firechat, created by US-based Open Garden, reports around 40,000 downloads of the app in the past week, compared with 6,600 downloads over the past few months, according to the BBC.
However, Firechat believes the number of users is probably much higher as many people in Iraq are likely to be using virtual private networks (VPNs) to disguise their internet activity.
Psiphon, a system that enables users to bypass internet censorship, has also reported more than 550,000 users, compared with just 8,000 before the blocks were imposed in Iraq.
In some parts of Iraq, the government is restricting access to social media sites, while in some provinces all internet access is being blocked to prevent militants from communicating, reports said.
Firechat allows users to take part in group conversations with up to 10,000 people, without the need for an internet connection.
The app uses mesh networking technology to send messages between users of the app within a 70-metre radius, but discussions are not private, and can be seen by anyone in the area using the app.
A mesh network allows a single connection to the net to be shared between multiple devices, and devices can still chat to each other even if the net connection is lost.
Firechat searches on Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for other phones running the same app. If they find one, they can talk to each other, and even pass on messages meant for other phones in the area.
The messages can travel great distances if there are enough users of the app to establish a chain of communication.
Firechat does not have access to the content of the messages, but conversations can be read by anyone using the app within range.
The latest version of the app, known as “Firechat Love”, merges the Android and iOS versions into one cross-compatible app, expanding the mesh still further, reports the Guardian.
Open Garden hopes that the new release will help build its install base outside the typical markets of the US and UK in places like Iraq and Taiwan, which also saw a spike in downloads of Firechat during April’s student protests when the government threatened to shut down the internet.
Civil liberties groups have criticised the net block in Iraq, arguing that just like Turkey, the government blocks harm those using social media for legitimate purposes.
“They are cutting off a lifeline for activists and other to the outside world,” said Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
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