Two nearly simultaneous events surrounding social network behemoth Facebook have recently directed public attention towards the network’s impact and power, giving Facebook critics new momentum: After an outage of the most important Facebook services last Monday that lasted several hours, former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen made serious accusations against the company before the US Senate the following day. In doing so, she also provided further fuel for politicians’ calls to stricter regulate Facebook services or even break up the group.
On Monday, Facebook experienced a total outage of its services lasting almost six hours. For the company‘s more than three billion users Facebook itself, as well as the group’s chat platform WhatsApp, the photo service Instagram and the business platform Workplace, were temporarily unavailable. Providers of alternative services recorded rising user numbers as a result.
The chat app Signal recorded millions of new users, with Signal‘s iPhone temporarily climbing from 55th to first place in the download charts. Telegram, the other popular WhatsApp alternative, recorded 70 million new users according to its founder Pawel Durow. Many users also reverted to good old SMS services. Deutsche Telekom recorded eight times more SMS messages than usual that day, while Telefonica (O2) reported a tripling of SMS traffic.
However, not only private users were affected. Many small businesses and self-employed workers rely heavily on Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram to sell products online and communicate with customers, and, as a consequence of the downtime, suffered considerable economic damage. In addition, Facebook’s Workplace service, a platform for internal communication for corporate customers, was also affected. On the stock market, Facebook shares plummeted by almost 5 per cent on the day of the incident. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s personal fortune alone thus shrank by more than USD 6bn within a few hours, according to calculations by Bloomberg.
Faulty Configuration Change Paralyzed Facebook Services
According to Facebook, the outage was triggered by a faulty configuration change. According to IT experts, this caused Facebook’s so-called Border Gateway Protocol to „disappear“, which is required for the company’s servers to be found on the Internet in the first place. Troubleshooting was exacerbated by the fact that Facebook’s internal communications were also affected. Even digital door locks reportedly failed in places.
In addition, Facebook network administrators could no longer access their own servers via the Internet to fix the error. Eventually, therefore, Facebook had to send a team to its data center in Santa Clara, California, to perform a manual reset of the servers, according to the New York Times.
Whistleblower Collected Internal Documents about the Services’ Harmful Consequences
The outage brought the impact of Facebook’s services to public attention at the most sensitive time imaginable: The very next day, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen brought her accusations against the corporation before the US Senate. The former Facebook data expert had already collected numerous internal documents and research papers from the company and leaked them to the Wall Street Journal.
At the same time, she filed a complaint with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which now entitles her to special legal protection as a whistleblower under US law. According to Haugen, the papers she collected prove that Facebook knew about the harmful effects of its services, and yet put business interests above those of its users.
For example, she said, studies by Facebook’s own researchers show that the Facebook service Instagram increases dissatisfaction with one’s own body and, as a result, a tendency toward eating disorders among many teenage users. In addition, Facebook employs mechanisms that can trigger addictive behaviour, especially among younger users, Haugen said.
According to the data expert, the company also takes too little action against polarizing and hate-fueled postings. Facebook does use algorithms to filter out harmful and misleading content, but they often don’t achieve sufficient results, she said. Internal documents also show that the company has exempted many prominent users from these filters, because they were unable to keep keep up with monitoring those users’ posts.
Facebook is Shaping our Perception of the World, Haugen Says
Overall, Facebook algorithms determine to a large extent what section of the world users get to see. „Facebook is shaping our perception of the world by selecting the information we see,“ the whistleblower said. However, the corporation turns these algorithms into closely guarded corporate secrets and denies researchers and regulators access to them. Haugen therefore calls for greater transparency and regulation of the selection mechanisms.
While Facebook itself does not deny the authenticity of the documents, it generally rejects the accusations. „The argument that we intentionally promote content to make people angry for money is deeply illogical,“ wrote Facebook CEO Zuckerberg. Advertisers, for example, have no interest in seeing their ads next to anger-inducing content.
Top Politicians call for Stronger Regulation or even Breakup of Facebook
For Facebook’s critics, Haugen’s revelations, together with the network outage, nevertheless provided new ammunition. Experts are talking about the biggest PR debacle for Facebook since the scandal surrounding the use of user data by Cambridge Analytica in 2018, when it became known that, years earlier, a data analysis company had been able to access information from millions of users without their knowledge or consent.
US politicians are increasingly calling for stronger regulation of or even breaking up the group, both among Democrats and in the Republican camp. „Break it up now,“ demanded influential Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example.
Many EU leaders also see the outage and Haugen’s statements as vindication of their plans to regulate companies like Facebook more closely. The network outage showed that there is a need for more competition, wrote Margrethe Vestager, EU Commissioner for Competition and Digital Affairs, on Twitter. „You can’t rely only on a few big players.“ That, she said, is also the goal of the Digital Markets Act (DMA). The new regulations to control large technology groups are currently being developed at EU level, she said.
The stock market continued to fall after Haugen’s appearance before the Senate, but shares recovered somewhat later in the week. The question from an economic point of view is whether the latest incidents can lead to a massive exodus of users and thus, as a consequence, of advertising customers. Some experts doubt that many users will completely turn their backs on Facebook services after the network outage. Facebook profits greatly from the so-called network effect: the service’s great benefit lies in its huge number of users, and it is difficult to find alternatives. The damage for the company could, for the time being, therefore be limited.
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