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Facebook outage should frighten everyone

The social media giant suffers a blackout that lasts several hours and causes disruption for its customers worldwide.

Iain Morris

October 5, 2021

4 Min Read
Facebook outage should frighten everyone

Twitter will attract little sympathy from Facebook engineers if (when?) it is struck by an outage lasting several hours. When Facebook suffered that misfortune on October 4, Twitter opted for schadenfreude, tweeting "hello literally everyone" in a fittingly infantile response by a site that has turned millions of people into juvenile halfwits and playground bullies.

The gloating invites future ridicule if Twitter's engineers or systems turn out to be less than perfect, and Twitter could publicly have spared a thought for Facebook's customers and users – many of whom it undoubtedly serves as well. For some, the disruption would have been a minor inconvenience that stopped them uploading the latest holiday snaps or scrolling absentmindedly through their friends' posts on the commute home. For others, including smaller businesses that rely on Facebook and its WhatsApp service as important advertising and communication channels, an outage lasting six hours would have been costly and a bit frightening.

Figure 1: Facebook's five-year share price ($) Source: Google Finance Source: Google Finance

It was subsequently blamed by Facebook on configuration changes to the backbone routers that bounce traffic between its data centers. "This disruption to network traffic had a cascading effect on the way our data centers communicate, bringing our services to a halt," said the company in a blog. The root cause – a "faulty configuration change," in Facebook's words – suggests human error may have been responsible. Sabotage has not been ruled out, either. The outage, intriguingly, comes after Frances Haugen, a whistleblowing former employee, leaked internal documents that do not show Facebook in a flattering light.

A cost was borne by Facebook's investors, too. The company's share price closed 4.89% down on the Nasdaq on Monday as netizens flocked to other services and markets weighed the financial impact of the outage. Facebook's share price has lost 14% of its value since the beginning of August, although it has gained 175% in the last five years.

Human error

This is the third major Internet outage that has occurred in the last five months. In June, websites including Amazon, Reddit, Twitch, the UK government portal and those of several newspapers – the New York Times, the Financial Times and the Guardian – all went offline for about an hour when Fastly, a content delivery network (CDN), ran into technical problems (caused, it subsequently transpired, when a Fastly customer stumbled on a software bug while changing computer settings).

That was followed in July by another brief outage affecting Barclays, HSBC, British Airways and Airbnb, among others. The culprit that time was Akamai, another CDN whose own engineers set off the bug that brought down a chunk of the Internet. Two years earlier, the Internet Society, a US not-for-profit group, had issued a warning about dependency on a handful of Internet companies in a report called "Consolidation in the Internet economy." Akamai, it said, was one of just four dominant providers in the market for DNS (domain name server) hosting. And 87.5% of the world's top 1,000 websites were reliant on CDNs by August 2018, up from just 50% in June 2014.

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The succession of incidents worryingly demonstrates how just a few private-sector companies operate the levers and pedals that make the Internet move. Their fallibility has been shown just as entire economic sectors are hitching themselves to the Internet – something that did not even exist 40 years ago – and being admonished if they are slow to join the online revolution. Cybercrime, sometimes orchestrated by government agencies, is on the rise, too.

Sadly, Internet dependency does not receive the attention it deserves. Those who raise questions are typically dismissed as technophobes or Luddites. Governments and companies have decided they would rather worry about climate change (previously known as global warming) or the coronavirus. But the Internet is starting to look like a plane carrying VIPs, flown by error-prone pilots as rockets are fired at it from the ground. The next outage threatens to be much worse.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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