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Facebook face plants

For a few blissful hours yesterday, Facebook went dark. The social media platform, including subsidiaries Instagram and WhatsApp, was down on Monday evening and, according to business boffs, its stock dropped nearly 5%, losing Mark Zuckerberg an obscene $7-billion in a matter of hours. 

While details are still murky about how the outage happened, whether through human error or planned endeavour, it was sobering for people to realise how one company has a monopoly on the only means of communication for most of the Global South. It was also disconcerting to realise how a company so powerful could be tripped up so easily.

In among the chortling and glee, it emerged that someone, or something, or a combination of both, ensured that not one device in the world could find Facebook.

Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram all live at the same address. Everyone who uses these apps has directions to that address. Imagine if a section of the route suddenly disappeared and all traces of the address you put in your GPS ceased to exist. Every time your device asks for directions, it’s told to ask someone else, over and over.

Security experts said the disruption could be the result of an internal error, although sabotage by an insider is not off the table.

“Facebook basically locked its keys in its car,” tweeted Jonathan Zittrain, director of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.

Just as Facebook’s Antigone Davis was live on CNBC defending the company over a whistleblower’s damning allegations of a company mired in deceit and the mishandling of research data suggesting Instagram is harmful to the mental health of teenagers, its entire network of services suddenly went offline.

The outage took nearly six hours to be resolved. This is Facebook’s worst incident since the site went offline for more than 24 hours in 2019, and the downtime hit the small businesses and creators who rely on these services for their income the hardest. 

Facebook issued an explanation, saying that the incident was caused by a configuration issue. The company says it doesn’t believe any user data was affected.

This outage comes at a precarious time for Facebook, which is still navigating the fallout of whistleblower Frances Haugen coming forward and accusing the company of being unwilling to fix its flaws, instead prioritising profits over combating misinformation and hate. 

Haugen, a former Facebook employee, will take her damning accusations to Washington on Tuesday when she testifies to US senators. Haugen came forward on Sunday as the whistleblower behind a series of damaging reports in the Wall Street Journal that have heaped further political pressure on the tech giant. Haugen told the news programme 60 Minutes that Facebook’s priority was making money over doing what was good for the public.

“The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook. And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimise for its own interests, like making more money,” she said on the programme.

The conspiracy theories about Facebook being at the mercy of a saboteur or tanking itself to overshadow Haugen’s claims pale in comparison to the very real possibility that nobody is in control of anything, especially online. If Covid has taught us one thing, it’s that some of the systems we are so reliant on are not as permanent or as secure as we’d like to believe.

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Kiri Rupiah
Kiri Rupiah is the online editor at the Mail & Guardian.
Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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