Last week saw Facebook’s reputation take two hard blows due to a severe outage on Monday and accusations by Frances Haugen in the US Senate on Tuesday. Both events have brought the company back to the spotlight and risk creating a déjà vu of the 2016 Cambridge Analytica scandal. Facebook has apologized to its users for the outage which its own safety measures worsened and defended its actions against Haugen by sustaining that the evidence lacks proper contextual setting.
The beginning of last week saw Facebook involved in two major news stories. On Monday afternoon the company suffered a major outage that a great deal of the world experienced firsthand when 3.5 billion users were no longer able to access its platforms, including Instagram and WhatsApp. On the previous day, former Facebook employee turned whistleblower Frances Haugen released an interview to CBS news’ 60 Minutes where she spoke out about the company’s decisions to put profits before the public good. These two events have put the tech giant back at the center of heated debates on industry safety standards and liability, and the issues of such concentrated control.
Facebook’s Monday outage was probably the worst social media blackout since 2008 and lasted more than six hours before the company’s engineers were able to get the platforms up and running again. However, the scale of the impact is different than in 2008 as the company has more than 3.5 billion users today across all of its platforms compared with 100 million users 13 years ago. According to the company’s VP of Engineering Santosh Janardhan, the issue was due to a fault during “routine maintenance” on its infrastructure and in no way caused by “malicious activity”. Quickly summarized, the outage occurred when the system that controls communication between Facebook’s data facilities was taken out by an internal error. This meant that they were no longer able to communicate among themselves or with the broader internet.
A second, indirect effect of this outage forced Facebook’s DNS servers to “declare themselves unhealthy” once they could no longer communicate with the data centers, and so the rest of the internet was no longer able to reach them. Janardhan explained that the situation was complicated by the “high levels of physical and system security” implemented at Facebook headquarters, which made it impossible for many workers to access their offices and the physical servers to manually initiate the restorative process. The security card access system itself relied on the technologies that went down. Then, because the hardware and servers are designed to be “difficult to modify” for safety measures, it took more time for engineers to rectify the problem once they got access to the buildings. While admitting that these safety measures made the outage last longer, Janardhan stated that he “believe[d] a tradeoff like this is worth it” for the increased security it provides to users.
Around the world the outage had trickledown effects that went well beyond users not being able to access social media or messaging services. Many startups and small businesses rely on the services of Facebook and Instagram to reach potential clients and for their e-commerce activities, while WhatsApp is the main communication instrument for a large share of the world. Some people were even locked out of their homes and blocked from using their appliances as these relied on AI technology developed by Facebook. The role of Facebook within national politics also resurfaced, as many governments were cut out from a primary tool for communication with their citizens and from some of their online platforms and services.
On Sunday Facebook had already come under the spotlight after the accusations of Frances Haugen, a former product manager for the company. The interview was followed on Tuesday by her testimony in front of the US Senate. Haugen’s accusations revolve around evidence that the company repeatedly chose its own interests over those of the public and the health and safety of its users. The evidence shows how Facebook often ignored the results of research that showed the negative effects of social media, especially on teenagers. While Haugen backed her claims in the form of private internal documents, Facebook countered that the information is biased because there is a lack of contextual information. Many of these allegations bring back the concerns that surfaced during the 2016 Cambridge Analytica scandal and involve the security measures that Facebook took before and immediately after the riots that followed the US elections, an incident that Haugen specifically mentions in her interview.
While all the controversy surrounding Facebook and other tech giants is nowadays a familiar topic, last week’s events put them back in center stage and the newfound pressure to make important changes may lead to an even greater backlash than in 2016 in the coming months. But only time will tell.