It was all fun and games and memes for many people in North America, but not so much for people in the rest of the world where Facebook has integrated itself into the structure of the entire internet. For six hours, people in North America joined Twitter and Telegram and joked about how they were free because Facebook’s services went down. In places like Brazil and Indonesia, business and communication effectively stopped.
When we talk about viewing these tech companies as monopolies and breaking them apart, a constant pushback from libertarian-minded people is that competition and time will smooth things over. They say that MySpace didn’t survive long, Google is just a search engine, and Amazon is just an online big-box retailer.
But these companies are far more than their forward-facing ubiquitous apps. Their structures are woven into the fabric of how we conduct business and connect every day. Amazon Web Services is the backend of much of the internet, Google’s ad-tech and search algorithms provide a hidden online structure for our daily interactions, and Facebook and WhatsApp are the portals through which much of the world views the internet. MySpace never got Indonesians to think of it as synonymous with being online, as Facebook has.
After the outage, Patrick Muyaya—the Democratic Republic of Congo’s spokesperson for the Ministry of Communication—got on Twitter to tell people it hadn’t cut off the internet intentionally.
“The internet connection has not been cut across the country,” he said, according to Twitter’s translation. “Rather, it is a global blackout crippling WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram. Other applications like Twitter are functioning normally. The same goes for browsing the web.”
Facing user-base saturation in North America and Europe, Facebook expanded around the world with its Free Basics program. More than just providing a stripped-down version of its site in countries like Sudan, Facebook has been laying fiber optic cable and building out the basic infrastructure of connectivity in Africa.
When Facebook went down, it also took down WhatsApp, the end-to-end encrypted messaging and phone service that’s become the de facto method of communication for billions of people across the planet. The withdrawal from Afghanistan, as disastrous as it was, was largely coordinated via WhatsApp. For perspective, WhatsApp is in such common use that the Taliban began offering quasi-government services through WhatsApp as they tore through the country. Governments around the world use WhatsApp to administer services.
When it was apparent the U.S. government was leaving thousands of Afghans behind, veterans and contractors organized a “Digital Dunkirk” to evacuate as many people as they could. Afghans and their Western friends communicated and coordinated via WhatsApp.
Six hours doesn’t seem like a long time, but when you’re waiting to hear news from a loved one stuck in Afghanistan or trying to coordinate an exit, it feels like a lifetime. “Losing connection with each other and with trusted allies in the outside world is... devastating,” Indian journalist and Afghan evacuation organizer Ruchi Kumar told MIT Technology Review. She said that missing a chance to evacuate “is literally life or death.”
The messaging program is so central to Afghan life that the Taliban used it to send messages to citizens after it took over the government. WhatsApp was used by an oppressive regime, but it’s also used to coordinate protest efforts around the country. Also in Afghanistan, it’s the primary organizational tool for women-led anti-Taliban resistance. In Lebanon, people use the app to organize street protests and check in on their friends during disasters and government crackdowns.
In Brazil, WhatsApp is more than just a messaging service. It facilitates businesses of every kind. The app is so popular in South America that it chose Brazil as the first country to get WhatsApp payments—a method of using the app to pay for goods and services. Gyms use it to track memberships and customers use it to make small purchases from shops and food stalls.
Yesterday, for six hours, all of that stopped. In America, we fled to Twitter and brands talked about how fun and funny the outage was. In Brazil, Sudan, and Afghanistan people suddenly couldn’t talk to loved ones or conduct business. Refugees fleeing Syria could no longer communicate with loved ones or coordinate with the networks helping them flee.
Six hours isn’t long in the grand scheme of things, and Facebook was able to bring itself, WhatsApp, and Instagram back online. But the outage highlighted a vulnerability and an opportunity.
We should not let one company run this much of the world. Six hours is too long for something as important as WhatsApp to be down. In the West, we saw those six hours as a comfort. We were free from something many of us didn’t use much anyway. In the rest of the world, it was a reminder of how much power one company based in the United States has over their lives.