It may have come as a surprise to Australian night owls when, at around 2:42 a.m. AEDT on Tuesday, their Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger and Oculus services suddenly and inexplicably went down.
This was not a local disturbance. In a blog post, Downdetector.com, a leading monitoring service for online outages, called it the biggest global outage ever — with 10.6 million reports from around the world.
The outage had a particularly massive impact on individuals and businesses around the world, who rely on WhatsApp to communicate with friends, family, co-workers and customers.
It took Facebook about six hours to bring the services back online, albeit slowly at the beginning. Ironically, the outage was so widespread that Facebook had to turn to its rival platform, Twitter, to get the world updated.
The Internet and its outwardly visible face (the World Wide Web) is a remarkably fault-tolerant machine. It was designed to be flexible – and the web has never completely gone down. As such, such global outages are quite rare.
But they are. To the embarrassment of Google, many of its services, including Gmail, YouTube, Hangouts, Google Calendar and Google Maps, went offline for about an hour in December last year.
And in June of this year, a cloud-computing company that serves clients like the Guardian, The New York Times, Reddit, and The Conversation went offline, too.
Read more: Rapid global Internet outages: why so many sites went down – and what is a CDN, anyway?
What happened because of this?
While Facebook’s management was apologetic, they gave no indication of what caused the outage.
With hacking issues becoming so common in today’s cyber-security threat environment, the question is whether Facebook’s outage could have been the result of a successful hack. But it seems impossible to do so.
According to a report in The Verge, referring to Facebook’s chief technology officer and vice president of infrastructure, it appears that the problem was probably Facebook’s internal infrastructure.
Facebook engineers were sent to one of the company’s data centers in California to work on the problem, meaning they were unable to log into the data center remotely.
Experts say the outage could have come from inside the company. It’s possible that Facebook engineers inadvertently changed the way the network was set up, causing a wider set of problems.
Such incidents have happened before, though not with such disastrous effect.
However, because of the highly confidential way Facebook operates its network, it is not possible to know what happened to the network configuration. We’ll probably never be told.
a domain name server problem
Supporting the network configuration explanation is the fact that when people tried to contact facebook.com and whatsapp.com the error message appeared indicating that it was a DNS problem. So the websites were still there, but they could not be reached.
DNS stands for Domain Name Server and is described as the “phonebook of the Internet”. It translates the domain names read by us into encoded Internet addresses (IP addresses) read by the computer.
When you enter a domain name like “facebook.com” or “whatsapp.com” in your browser, the domain name server is consulted and the corresponding encoded Internet address, called the IP.
Read more: ‘What is my IP address?’ Explaining one of the world’s most Googled questions
When everything is working as it should, the user is connected to the requested domain. Based on evidence from expert sources close to Facebook, it appears that the outage was caused by an external attack.
a whistleblower speaks
The Facebook outage came hours after the US-based 60 Minutes program aired an incendiary interview with former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen, 37, a Harvard graduate.
In a complaint to federal law enforcement, and in interviews, Haugen alleged that Facebook’s Instagram app is harming teenage girls, and Facebook’s own research indicates that the company “increases hatred, misinformation and political unrest.” but the company hides what it knows”.
To back up the allegations, Haugen shared more than 10,000 pages of internal documentation with the US Securities and Exchange Commission — all very damning things. He said:
What I saw over and over again on Facebook was what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook, and Facebook repeatedly chose to optimize for their own interests, such as making more money.
Given the timing of the interview and Facebook’s global outage, it’s natural to wonder whether the two incidents are linked. However, a causal link between the two events has not been established, with the absence of any definitive evidence to support this theory.
But given the gravity of Haugen’s revelations, and the weight of objective evidence in the form of thousands of inside documents, it is clear that further investigation is warranted.
Facebook has approximately 2.89 billion monthly active users and has a market capitalization of US$1.21 trillion. By any standard, this is a large and powerful company with a lot of influence. Now is the time to shed light on its morality, or lack thereof.
Hopefully there will be no more interruptions to slow down the process.