For the second time within a week, Facebook is struggling with technical problems. After the total failure on Monday there is on Friday evening again disruptions on Instagram and Co. This time the problems are apparently not as serious as at the beginning of the week, but the series of breakdowns raises the old question again: If a technical error is enough to break the communication of billions of people, isn’t Facebook too powerful? “Facebook has more power than any dictatorship in the world,” warns IT security expert Manuel Atug. “If we don’t realize that there is a problem, we think too briefly.”
On Monday evening the entire Facebook network was down, billions of people were cut off from communicating with others, companies could no longer work – does Facebook have too much power?
Manuel Atug: In short: yes. When billions of people are affected and communication with one another is restricted, when a corporation breaks down, one has to say: This corporation has too much power.
Is power the right word here at all?
Facebook can specifically, upon request or due to a misconfiguration, prevent a billion-digit number of people from communicating with each other on a daily basis. That is more power than all dictatorships or autocracies in the world have.
The shutdown of Facebook was an accident, a mistake …
Whenever centralized systems or capitalist-driven corporations ensure communication between civil society, but at the same time can be switched off together, it can of course be discussed whether this makes sense. Here a tech company, which is actually an advertising company, cut people off from one another – and did so for many hours.
What are you trying to say?
I think we should think about whether it makes sense or whether it might be good to split this company into several so that there is no consolidation between social platforms and messenger services. This also contradicts how the Internet was once structured.
What do you mean?
The internet was actually once decentralized and therefore very resilient and fail-safe, if you will. If one network node breaks down, you had many others through which the data could flow. Now we have central concentrators in the network. We have thus reduced resilience and reliability to absurdity and created positions that cause great damage if they fail – like Facebook now, a so-called single point of failure.
What exactly happened?
The Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) was defective.
What is it?
Now, of course, it’s getting a bit technical. The BGP regulates how network components talk to each other so that the communication fits and the information comes from the client to the server and back again. So: How do data packets have to flow? If a network component breaks down or is slower, other routes are normally used dynamically – this is like the mail distribution network, so to speak.
And where exactly was the mistake now?
Here the wrong routes were communicated to the systems, which then spread like a cancer through the entire network and the systems and prevented communication between the systems. You can introduce a new BGP routing, but that takes time. And the systems that were cut off have to be touched by hand. It is no longer enough for an administrator to manage this from his computer, then you have to go to the server room. One can imagine that on Facebook this can be quite a large number of systems.
Is that a rare mistake?
No. It is not a question of whether that will happen, but to whom and when. And that is exactly where the problem lies: It is completely normal for something to go wrong, but that has a big impact if it happens at one of the gigantic internet companies.
So this doesn’t just apply to Facebook?
No, that can happen to any corporation, this is about the basic infrastructure of the Internet.
What is it that makes this thing so important?
There are few corporations with as much influence as Facebook has. These are the usual suspects: Microsoft with the Azure cloud, Google of course, Apple and Amazon. Then nothing comes for a while and then, for example, Alibaba, Oracle and SAP come. But you can see that it is the big cloud providers and the social media platforms that advertise that are extremely consolidated. WhatsApp itself is just a service. But if it is operated under the umbrella of this group, it doesn’t just have advantages. Because they work very centrally and efficiently there and want to use common standards to save money. After all, you want to serve the largest possible number of users and get the maximum possible profit. But then the risk is also higher if something happens, and here we see that Facebook messed it up with an error across three platforms.
Why did we let these players grow so big?
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This is of course a very complex relationship and I can only mention a few fragments that seem important to me. For example, we slept a very long time in government regulation to restrict digital services and advertising tech companies in some form. Now they have this market power and this many billions in budget and users in the background. America First has been in the US for the past few years, so it was not to be expected that they would restrict the corporations. But Germany and the EU also slept for a long time. Ms. von der Leyen and Mr. Voss (EPP MEPs in the European Parliament, responsible for digital policy; editor’s note), it was more important to bring something crazy like this article 13 on copyright into the world instead of doing so something to worry about. And if you set the wrong priorities, you get a broken copyright and as a gift a broken system of social media advertising group problems pinned to your cheek.
So politics worked in the interests of the big players?
It was demonstrably not independent. The lobbying of the digital corporations borders on corruption. Many of the bills in EU law have been shown to have been co-written by Google or Facebook. That was definitely lobbyism that was detrimental to communication in society as a whole – and then these are the answers you get for it. In software development they say: garbage in – garbage out. When I program garbage, garbage comes out of it. And if you knit the legislation in such a way that the tech companies can sell even more advertising, then we have a problem.
How can this be fixed?
more on the subject
The problem is that the legislation is slow and the corporations are very fast and have hordes of lawyers.
Bottom line: would you say that it would make sense to disentangle the corporations?
Well, you have to look carefully at what you are doing. AT&T was also smashed and that didn’t help either. We have the same misery, we just slowed it down. You have to think carefully about how to unbundle – or how to regulate. I don’t mean to say that regulation is really great and great, you have to approach it with caution and a sense of proportion. It is important that you work neutrally and in the interests of the citizen. And that’s exactly where the problem lies: The corporations then come with their swarms of locusts of lawyers and try to botch the whole thing up on their behalf.
Do you actually see a connection between the market power of the corporations and the Facebook outage?
I separate cause and effect. We have now seen the effect. But the causes are much more complex and no small matter. I can now say: Yes, the administrators screwed up something, it can happen, shit happens. But the whole thing has a history of causes and I have just explained that. I think we shouldn’t say now that there was damage and that we are going to continue like this. If we don’t realize that there is a problem, we think too briefly.
Bastian Hosan spoke to Manuel Atug
The article first appeared at Capital.de.