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Technology

Why did Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp shut down?

Katy Lee, Daniel Hoffman - Agence France-Presse
Why did Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp shut down?
Construction proceeds on phases three through five at a Facebook data center on October 5, 2021 in Eagle Mountain, Utah. Facebook was shut down yesterday for more than seven hours reportedly due in part to a major disruption in communication between the company's data centers.
George Frey/Getty Images/AFP

PARIS, France — Hundreds of millions of people were unable to access Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp for more than six hours on Monday, underscoring the world's reliance on platforms owned by the Silicon Valley giant.

But what actually caused the outage?  

What does Facebook say happened?

In an apologetic blog post, Santosh Janardhan, Facebook's vice president of infrastructure, said that "configuration changes on the backbone routers that coordinate network traffic between our data centres caused issues that interrupted this communication".

Facebook explained Tuesday the outage was "caused not by malicious activity, but an error of our own making."

Can you explain that in plain English?

Cyber experts think the problem boils down to something called BGP, or Border Gateway Protocol — the system the internet uses to pick the quickest route to move packets of information around. 

Sami Slim of data centre company Telehouse compared BGP to "the internet equivalent of air traffic control". 

In the same way that air traffic controllers sometimes make changes to flight schedules, "Facebook did an update of these routes," Slim said. 

But this update contained a crucial error.

It's not yet clear how or why, but Facebook's routers essentially sent a message to the internet announcing that the company's servers no longer existed. 

Why did it take so long to fix the problem?

Experts say Facebook's technical infrastructure is unusually reliant on its own systems — and that proved disastrous on Monday. 

After Facebook sent the fateful routing update, its engineers got locked out of the system that would allow them to communicate that the update had, in fact, been an error. So they couldn't fix the problem. 

"Normally it's good not to put all your eggs in one basket," said Pierre Bonis of AFNIC, the association that manages domain names in France. 

"For security reasons, Facebook has had to very strongly concentrate its infrastructure," he said. 

"That streamlines things on a daily basis — but because everything is in the same place, when that place has a problem, nothing works."

The knock-on effects of the shutdown included some Facebook employees being unable to even enter their buildings because their security badges no longer worked, further slowing the response. 

Is this unprecedented?

Social media outages are not uncommon: Instagram alone has experienced more than 80 in the past year in the United States, according to website builder ToolTester. 

This week's Facebook outage was rare in its length and scale, however. 

There is also a precedent for BGP meddling being at the root of a social media shutdown.

In 2008, when a Pakistani internet service provider was attempting to block YouTube for domestic users, it inadvertently shut down the global website for several hours. 

And the outage's impact?

Between Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, "billions of users have been impacted by the services being entirely offline", the Downdetector tracking service said.

Facebook, whose shares fell nearly five percent over the outage, has stressed there is "no evidence that user data was compromised as a result of this downtime".

But even though it lasted just a few hours, the impact of the shutdown ran deep. 

Facebook's services are crucial for many businesses around the world, and users complained of being cut off from their livelihoods. 

Facebook accounts are also commonly used to log in to other websites, which faced additional problems due to the company's technical meltdown. 

Rival instant messaging services, meanwhile, reported that they had benefited from the fact that WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger were down. 

Telegram went from the 56th-most downloaded free app in the United States to the fifth, according to monitoring firm SensorTower, while Signal tweeted that "millions" of new users had joined.

And among the more curious side-effects, several domain name registration companies listed Facebook.com as available for purchase. 

"There was never any reason to believe Facebook.com would actually be sold as a result, but it's fun to consider how many billions of dollars it could fetch on the open market," said cyber security expert Brian Krebs.

FACEBOOK INSTAGRAM WHATSAPP
As It Happens
LATEST UPDATE: October 27, 2021 - 7:53am

Get the latest news about Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms. Main image from by Pixelkult from Pixabay 

October 27, 2021 - 7:53am

Twitter says it had posted a $537 million net loss in the third quarter after settling a lawsuit alleging investors were misled about slowing user growth.

Despite revenue rising sharply with the help of robust ad sales, Twitter still posted an operating loss of $743 million, fuelled by the more than $800 million settlement.

The 2016 federal suit filed by shareholders claimed the defendants, such as former CEO Dick Costolo, did not disclose the full picture of the company's state while they sold their personal stock in Twitter.  — AFP

October 26, 2021 - 7:25am

Facebook on Monday reports that its profit in the recently-ended quarter topped $9 billion and its ranks of users continued to increase as the company faced a serious crisis over allegedly putting growth before safety.

Facebook says profit was up 17 percent from the same period last year, and the number of people using the social network monthly climbed 6 percent to 2.91 billion. — AFP

October 23, 2021 - 1:26pm

Facebook held back from doing all it could to stop users from being radicalized and US election misinformation from flooding the social network, according to media reports Friday.

An array of US news outlets cited documents from former Facebook worker Frances Haugen, adding to a series of critical revelations already published based on information she provided.

Articles in the New York Times, Washington Post and elsewhere on Friday focused on how Facebook apparently intensified political division.

Examples included an internal finding that 10 percent of political content viewed by US users in the days after the election perpetuated the falsehood that the vote had been rigged.

What has come to be known as the "Big Lie" has been repeated relentlessly by former President Donald Trump and enraged his supporters, who stormed the US Capital in a deadly attack on January 6. —  AFP

October 22, 2021 - 7:14am

Google announces it will lower a fee in its app store as pressure mounts on tech giants to loosen their grip over their online marketplaces.

The commission on subscriptions taken by Google Play will be lopped in half to 15 percent starting in January, vice president of product management Sameer Samat says in a blog post.

Currently Google gets a 30 percent cut for the first year of a subscription, then 15 percent on renewals.

Google says the new fee structure meant businesses would not have to wait for subscribers to renew — which they may or may not do — to benefit from a lower commission. — AFP

October 21, 2021 - 6:26pm

Facebook says it had reached an agreement with some French newspapers to pay for news shown on its users' feeds, months after Google announced a similar accord.

Facebook says the deal it struck with a group of national and regional newspapers would see it obtain licenses to publish their content. — AFP

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