Houston, we have a problem: The Facebook outage & the dangers of digital feudalist oligarchies

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On October 4th, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram went down worldwide for about 7 hours. Users were unable to log on, communicate with others, interact with the wide world or use a huge chunk of the internet at all. The only major social networks still running were Twitter, Reddit, Snapchat and TikTok. What do the failed ones all have in common? That’s right, Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp, all collectively used by billions across the globe, are all owned by one single massive corporation. And if something were to happen to that corporation’s servers, well, we got only a taste of the disastrous consequences just a few weeks ago.

While there have been sporadic outages by these very same networks over the years, we have never witnessed such a colossal failure until now. According to Facebook engineers themselves, the issue was that “configuration changes on the backbone routers that coordinate network traffic between our data centres caused issues that interrupted this communication” and insisted there was no malicious intention behind these outages. The issue was reportedly so severe that specialists had to fly in to fix it manually as employee badges and internal software failed to function, meaning Facebook employees were unable to enter their workplace buildings and access their work devices, much less fix the problems. Meanwhile, the situation on Twitter couldn’t be better. Everyone noticed that their favourite socials were down and flocked to the ones still active, Twitter included. Twitter reported its highest engagement numbers ever as the memes and complaints started flowing in, and its “Hello literally everyone” tweet quickly went viral. The funniest part came when Facebook had to post situation updates via Twitter, one of its market rivals.

All of this is to say that one company shouldn’t be allowed to control so much of the internet (Yes, Google, Apple, Amazon & Microsoft, I’m looking at you as well.). Just because Facebook’s servers happen to have a bad day should not mean billion’s of people’s lives get interrupted, and that we all have to wait for Facebook to get their act together to continue with our lives. People are constantly communicating with their loved ones, running businesses, engaging with their passions via these networks, whereas these sorts of events utterly ruin the flow we have grown accustomed to and can prove detrimental. While it can be fun to have flashbacks of 2010 when social media was still in its nascent stages, we must realize outages like these have consequences. While those living in Europe or North America had the luxury of simply joking about the situation and waiting it out, regions like Latin America, Africa and the Indian subcontinent were forced to grind to a halt as businesses dependent on Facebook & WhatsApp were unable to conduct business and where millions have these platforms as their sole means of communication. This was only a temporary mishap, but imagine if the outages lasted longer, or there was malicious intent behind these outages. I’ll leave it up to you, dear reader, to mull on that as you please.

So what can be done? The answer is simple, the process not so much: Break Big Tech up ASAP.

WhatsApp and Instagram were not always under Facebook’s umbrella. They were independent success stories till they were acquired by Facebook in 2014 and 2012, respectively. Facebook was afraid of their progress and wanted to neuter its opposition by outright buying them, especially since this was the beginning of Facebook’s infamous flirtations with massive data collection and privacy breaches and the press was pushing consumers to try alternatives. With the acquisitions, Facebook controlled 3 of the largest social networks on the planet. While Instagram was once designed solely for people sharing their pictures as a pastime, it now includes a specified marketplace tab, is swamped ever more egregiously by ads, and has been copying its rivals like TikTok ad nauseam, on top of the massive data collection and weak privacy, all of which have occurred under Facebook’s watch. All of this triviality could be ignored if Facebook weren’t also responsible for actual real-world harm. The algorithms utilized within these sites are designed to keep us on them for as long as possible, mindlessly scrolling while inadvertently helping these algorithms grow ever more potent. The content these algorithms usually serve up include; negative news pieces, misinformation and lack of regulation of dangerous discourse for Facebook and unrealistic, self-degrading images of perfection on Instagram. Facebook has been notorious for failing to crack down on fake news surrounding the results of the 2020 US election (Just so we’re all clear, Joe Biden won the election fair and square) and more recently, anti-vax misinformation. People have died because Facebook was unwilling or unable to curb the narrative that horse medicine is more effective than scientifically sound vaccines(It is not) or that vaccines cause cancer, 5G or whatever else people are capable of conjuring up. As for Instagram, it fosters, especially amongst teenagers that are impressionable and at the most crucial stage of their mental development, a sense of inadequacy and inferiority compared to some influencers that have an army of producers behind them and earn thousands from each post that makes it look like life is perfect for them. It can lead to anxiety and depression, especially amongst teenagers that tend to be more aware of their body images than other age demographics, and in extreme situations can lead to mental disorders and suicide. This is why a proposed “Instagram for kids” has been so universally panned, alongside the potential that Facebook would be willing to harvest data from unwitting pre-adolescents. None of this covers other facts, like how a whistleblower testified to Congress about how Facebook puts profit over people (colour me shocked) just a day before the outages, the massive Cambridge Analytica data leak in 2017 where Facebook was selling the data of up to 100 million users, how Facebook moderators have an alarmingly high turnover rate, etc. I could go on and on and on but, I hope you get my message by now.

And my ire is in no way limited to Facebook alone. The entire internet is essentially controlled by five corporations(Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft). These “Big 5” have more or less turned the internet into their fiefdoms and where everything happens through at least one of them. The same way medieval kings used to conquer lesser lords to compete with equally powerful rival kingdoms, this cabal has acquired startups and smaller players at an incredible rate. They have expanded their influence over the internet, leaving little space for independent actors to operate and stimulate innovation, and have raised massive antitrust and anticompetitive concerns. And if one of them were to fall, like Facebook did recently, it shouldn’t be that a fifth of the internet goes down with it, affecting so many people’s livelihoods. We should not be praying that a handful of companies are competent enough to keep the internet going, and frankly, the way things are going may soon end up being a dystopian writer’s worst nightmare if the rise of surveillance and big data is prevalent. All their heads must be on the chopping board lickety-split, and Facebook’s must be the first one to fall.

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