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Amid global web censorship, free internet app offers lifeline

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WITH internet and press freedom globally shrinking, Stanislav Shalunov, developer of a mobile app that allows users to send messages without internet connection, has said that evading online censorship is an obligation.

He disclosed this in a virtual interview with The ICIR via Zoom, stating that internet censorship by governments was not justified because of role of the internet in people’s lives.

“People have become more reliant on the internet, especially since the outset of the coronavirus. I am a network engineer and what every network engineer strives for is to make the internet work.

Internet shut-downs are attempts to do on purpose what every network engineer tries to avoid from happening.  I make networks work and don’t think people should break them on purpose for any reason,” he said.

In June, the Nigerian Government banned Twitter, saying the app was being used to spread fake news which undermined ‘Nigeria’s corporate existence.’

Many Nigerians still tweet in defiance of government threats, using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to bypass the ban.

Nigeria is yet to shut down internet access as a response to dissent from citizens, however, it is estimated that a nationwide internet shutdown will result in an economic loss of $134 million daily.

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Shalunov is the founder of Fireside Messenger, a mobile app that allows users to send encrypted messages without an internet connection or VPNs, unlike WhatApp and Facebook.

He told The ICIR that his motivation for developing the app was to help people who could not afford expensive internet plans to have access to information freely or circumvent online censorship, especially in developing countries.

“We want to give people who are unable to afford expensive internet data plan or areas where mobile connectivity is failing to access information freely and communicate at any time.

“Our worry first is about creating value and solving problems while the monetary considerations from this app is secondary,” he said.

The app was built on the NewNode protocol and compatible with a smartphone to avoid censorship, reduce content delivery costs and improve network reliability.

Shalunov co-founded Open Garden, a US-based venture capital startup in 2011. He had created FireChat, a mobile messenger app that works without internet connectivity by linking nearby phones directly to one another and passing unencrypted messages.

It was downloaded by over six million people during the 2014 protests in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

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He also emphasised that the Fireside Messenger was ready for the market and was designed to scale as more users engaged with the app.

“The Fireside Messenger is 100 per cent ready for the market. There is no perfect app but as users begin to engage with it, there will be scaling opportunities,” he said.

Amos Abba is a journalist with the International Center for Investigative Reporting, ICIR, who believes that courageous investigative reporting is the key to social justice and accountability in the society.

If you or someone you know has a lead, tip or personal experience about this report, our WhatsApp line is open and confidential for a conversation

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