The Facebook Crash of October 4th, 2021: The Dangers of Big Tech

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On October 4th, 2021, shortly before 5 PM UTC, Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram were rendered completely inaccessible. Ultimately, the Facebook (now: Meta) outage lasted for over 5 hours, affecting all parts of the world. Beyond exposing some apparently severe technological shortcomings, the outage also demonstrated the danger of relying on big tech companies – especially when this occurs in countries lacking governmental protection for citizens.

If a massive number of people relies on a specific service or interlinked set of services, then failure of those services becomes a problem. With the way our internet is structured, it is extremely difficult to avoid using a product or service offered by either Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, of Microsoft. The resulting dominance of these big tech companies therefore exacerbates the potential harm done when they fail to protect its users’ privacy or regulate the content on their services.

Whereas most major news outlets reported on the outage from an American or European perspective, the brunt of the impact was felt particularly in developing countries. In many of these countries, the rule of law is weaker, or the governments have not been able to challenge Facebook in any substantial way. There are parts of the world where Facebook is so prevalent that during the outage, people assumed the entire Internet had gone down. This is entirely the result of a targeted strategy by Facebook.

Through its Free Basics initiative, Facebook intended to capture markets in the Global South with low internet penetration rates. Launching in 2015, Free Basics was a Facebook-based version of internet, providing free internet services to users. In several countries this ‘digital colonialism’ has had devastating consequences, as Facebook failed to properly prepare for the different social and political climates in different countries. For example, in Myanmar, Facebook was used by ultranationalists to promote the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims. Free Basics was introduced in many more countries, resulting in entire populations thinking of Facebook as synonymous with the internet. Services such as WhatsApp have become the dominant means of communication. In Kenya and Malawi, for example, many inhabitants have opted for mobile bundles based on their frequent WhatsApp use, which are much cheaper than standard mobile data. Moreover, WhatsApp is used in countries where there is no universal literacy. The option to use voice-based messages has offered a great solution to those who are unable to read.  

The implications of our growing dependence on big tech go deep. People should not have to rely on technology for access to their basic human rights. Especially when these big tech companies repeatedly fail to uphold human rights, the precarity of this overreliance is evident. The impact of the Facebook outage in countries where the company’s aggressive strategy has made people completely reliant on its services is daunting. People are dependent on the service to speak to their friends and families, and businesses use it to log into their sales services. There are even examples of complete businesses ran through Facebook, which were unable to make any revenue for multiple hours. Whereas in the United States and Europe the impact of the Facebook outage was seen as an inconvenience or even as a nice break from social media, the harm in Free Basics countries was much more significant, even dangerous.