TechScape: Was this the worst week in Facebook’s history? – The Guardian
Up for discussion in the Guardian tech newsletter: Zuckerberg forced to deal with crashes, leaks and ‘destabilising democracy’
Last modified on Wed 6 Oct 2021 12.05 BST
What a week for Facebook, and it’s only Wednesday.
After a month or so of bad news for the company, during which there have been damaging revelations the company knew Instagram was harming the mental health of teenagers and that Facebook knew changes to its news feed had made it more polarising in the lead-up to the 6 January storming of the Capitol. The former led Facebook to pause a plan to roll out a version of Instagram for kids.
On Sunday, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen came forward as the source of the Wall Street Journal’s stories, and on Tuesday testified before the US Congress about the harm she believes Facebook is doing to children, democracy, and the world.
As my colleagues in the US neatly summarised, in her testimony, Haugen said:
The “buck stops” with the founder and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg.
Facebook knows its systems lead teenagers to anorexia-related content.
The company had to “break the glass” and turn back on safety settings after the 6 January Washington riots.
Facebook intentionally targets teenagers and children under 13.
Monday’s outage that brought down Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp meant that for more than five hours Facebook could not “destabilise democracies”.
Of course, Zuckerberg has now gone on the defensive, saying: “At the heart of these accusations is this idea that we prioritise profit over safety and wellbeing. That’s just not true.” But that’s far from the only problem he is facing.
Around the same time she was speaking, Facebook released a long statement about Monday’s five-hour company-wide outage basically confirming everything that had been reported about what went wrong.
Essentially, during routine maintenance, Facebook disconnected its data centres, which had the cascading effect of making its DNS servers unreachable to the whole internet.
“All of this happened very fast. And as our engineers worked to figure out what was happening and why, they faced two large obstacles: first, it was not possible to access our data centers through our normal means because their networks were down, and second, the total loss of DNS broke many of the internal tools we’d normally use to investigate and resolve outages like this,” Facebook’s VP of infrastructure, Santosh Janardhan, said.
This meant, as was reported, Facebook had to send engineers onsite to restart systems, which was complicated because of Facebook’s own security systems being tied into its network, meaning it took longer to physically access the systems.
To the outside world, it was a powerful demonstration of just how much the internet is built, for better or worse, on Facebook.
“For more than five hours Facebook wasn’t used to deepen divides, destabilise democracies and make young girls and women feel bad about their bodies,” Haugen told Congress.
Resistance is futile
It is easy in places like the US, Australia and the UK to joke that Facebook’s outage forced boomers to research vaccines elsewhere, or that peace broke out immediately, but through its Borg-like assimilation of competitors WhatsApp and Instagram and its aggressive push into developing countries through Free Basic, the outage showed just how much of the internet Facebook accounts for now.
In many parts of the world, Facebook is the internet, and WhatsApp is the primary method of digital communication.
In Brazil and Mexico, 95% and 98% of social media users have Facebook accounts, and in India 500 million people use WhatsApp.
Those countries would have felt the impact much more deeply than those who were quickly able to jump on to Twitter and send off a few pithy tweets about it.
“Developing nations such as India, Mexico and Brazil have come to rely on these free messaging services,” Callum Sillars, social media expert at Ampere Analysis said. “They are often the backbone of communication in these countries. Small businesses and informal economies in particular rely on Facebook’s services.”
That’s before even examining the impact the outage had on businesses that run on Facebook, or those that use Facebook logins as authentication methods for their own services.
I received some conspiratorially minded emails suggesting Facebook might have deliberately sabotaged itself to draw attention away from all its other woes. I am not quite so cynically minded, but even if that were a deliberate tactic, it was a massive failure.
The outage will just serve to compound Facebook’s issues, and do nothing to distract from its other problems.
If anything, it shows, along with other high-profile cases such as the Cloudflare and Fastly outages, just how over-reliant on a small amount of services the internet now is, and how single points of failure can have devastating impacts across large sections of the modern internet.
‘Break them up’
Politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have already argued the outage shows the need for big tech companies like Facebook to be broken up.
“If Facebook’s monopolistic behaviour was checked back when it should’ve been (perhaps around the time it started acquiring competitiors like Instagram), the continents of people who depend on WhatsApp and [Instagram] for either communication or commerce would be fine right now,” she tweeted.
“Break them up.”
Regulators across the world are going to keep the pressure on Facebook. In Australia, we already saw first hand what happens when Facebook tries to exert pressure, when the company pulled all news content from its feed in response to the Australian government trying to force Facebook and Google to pay for news content.
Ultimately news returned to Facebook, and Facebook has signed deals for payments to 11 media companies, including Guardian Australia.
Australia’s communications minister, Paul Fletcher, said this week he was unsurprised by the allegations raised in Congress about Facebook, and said while governments would have to coordinate globally on regulating the tech giants, individual countries still should be able to regulate them
“Ultimately a sovereign government must assert the right to impose legal requirements to protect the safety of citizens and if you’re bringing a service to Australia, whether it is in the internet field or anywhere else, you need to comply with the laws of the land.”
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