Facebook Apps Suffer Outages Amidst Monopoly Debate
On Wednesday, March 14th, many users reported trouble accessing Facebook-owned apps. The outages were due to a greater debate between CEOs and policymakers surrounding the monopolistic status of Facebook and other large tech corporations. These reports began to subside early in the morning of Thursday, March 15th, and officially ended Thursday afternoon.
According to maps posted by DownDetector.com, Facebook faced outages throughout North America, Europe, and Latin America. Apps affected include Instagram, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp. Sites covering the outages also received reports from users who were unable to access the online functionality of their Oculus VR headsets. Others had trouble accessing third-party apps, such as Spotify, when relying on signing in through Facebook.
After tweeting at 13:49 EST on Wednesday recognizing the outage, Facebook clarified two hours later that the issue was not related to a DDoS attack, alleviating initial concerns of a cyber attack. A final tweet on 12:24 EST on Thursday announced the outage was a result of a “server configuration change,” which had by then been resolved.
This outage, which lasted between 14 and 21 hours, is being called the “biggest interruption ever suffered by the social network.” It came less than a week after Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) announced a plan to break up large tech corporations as part of her 2020 presidential campaign. In this announcement, which was published on Friday, March 8th, Warren writes that “Today’s big tech companies have too much power [...] They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else.” Explicitly naming tech giants Facebook, Amazon and Google, Warren writes that “America has a long tradition of breaking up companies when they have become too big and dominant,” referring to the antitrust laws enacted in the wake of the Gilded Age of late-19th Century US history.
Warren’s plan consists of two major steps. The first is the designation of companies making $25 billion or more globally each year and that “offer to the public an online marketplace, an exchange, or a platform for connecting with third parties” as platform utilities. These companies would not be allowed to own both the platform utility itself as well as the participants on that platform. This very clearly targets the aforementioned three corporations - Facebook, Amazon, and Google - each of which maintains systems which would be restricted under Warren’s plan. Effectively, this would force these corporations to spin off parts of themselves and keep these portions structurally separate, which would, in theory, serve to tackle some of the vertical integration issues inherent to these monopolies.
The second step of her plan is to use the aforementioned existing antitrust laws to “unwind anti-competitive mergers” through the appointment of regulators committed to this process. If successful, Warren’s efforts could potentially undo some of the most recent and high-profile mergers in the tech industry, including but not limited to Amazon with Whole Foods and Zappos; Google with Waze, Nest, and DoubleClick (now operating as Google AdSense); and Facebook with WhatsApp and Instagram. All of this is connected to Warren’s overall goal of promoting competition in the tech sector, so that tech entrepreneurs could better compete against the more established tech giants.
In addition to economic benefits, competition would force giants to improve their user experiences in all aspects. Pertinent to the recent Facebook outages are stability (both client-side and server-side) and security (particularly given the initial concerns that a DDoS attack may have caused the outage), both of which would see improvements in a competitive world. Furthermore, in the event of an outage, de-integrating participants of platform utilities from the platforms themselves would prevent crippling the services of multiple interlinked applications, as happened with the Facebook outages this past week.