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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: January 16, 2022 - 8:55am

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

January 16, 2022 - 8:55am

Top bosses of Google and Facebook were directly involved in approving an allegedly illegal 2018 deal to cement their dominance of the online advertising market, US court documents revealed Friday.

The records, part of an anti-trust lawsuit by a coalition of US states targeting Google, make serious allegations against Big Tech giants long accused of holding monopolies.

According to the states' accusations, the online search colossus sought to oust competition by manipulating ad auctions — the ultra-sophisticated system that determines which ads appear on web pages based on the anonymized profiles of internet users. — AFP

January 2, 2022 - 9:27am

US authorities have asked telecom operators AT&T and Verizon to delay for up to two weeks their already postponed rollout of 5G networks amid uncertainty about interference with vital flight safety equipment.

The two companies said Saturday they are reviewing the request.

The US rollout of the high-speed mobile broadband technology had been set for December 5, but was delayed to January 5 after aerospace giants Airbus and Boeing raised concerns about potential interference with the devices planes use to measure altitude. — AFP

December 31, 2021 - 11:11am

Palestinian journalists have raised the alarm over what they describe as unjust suppression of their content on Facebook, a claim backed by rights groups but rejected by the social media giant.

On December 4, Palestine TV correspondent Christine Rinawi posted a video on her Facebook account in which Israeli security forces were seen shooting a Palestinian on the ground, killing him. He had just carried out a knife attack on an Israeli civilian. 

Shortly after she posted her video, Rinawi, who has nearly 400,000 followers, noticed it had been removed from her account. — AFP

December 17, 2021 - 10:38am

Facebook parent Meta bans a series of "cyber mercenary" groups, and begins alerting some 50,000 people likely targeted by the firms accused of spying on activists, dissidents and journalists worldwide.

Meta took down 1,500 Facebook and Instagram pages linked to groups with services allegedly ranging from scooping up public information online to using fake personas to build trust with targets or digital snooping via hack attacks.

The social media giant also started warning about 50,000 people it believes may have been targeted in more than 100 nations by firms that include several from Israel, which is a leading player in the cybersurveillance business. — AFP

December 10, 2021 - 10:47am

When website addresses using writing systems like Chinese and Arabic were introduced back in 2009, it was hailed as a step that would transform the internet.

But 12 years later, the vast majority of the web remains wedded to the Roman alphabet -- and ICANN, the organisation in charge of protecting the internet's infrastructure, is on a mission to change it.

"The truth of the matter is that even if half the world's population uses the internet today, it's the elite of the world -- mainly those living in cities, mainly those with a good income," Goran Marby, head of the US-based non-profit, told AFP in an interview. 

"Shouldn't we give people the opportunity to use their own scripts, their own keyboards, their own narratives?"

It's thanks to ICANN — the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers — that when you type an address at the top of the screen, your computer can find the web page you're looking for.

These days it's theoretically possible to type an address in more than 150 scripts, including obscure ones like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, and watch the page load.

But large parts of the internet remain incompatible with writing systems other than the Latin alphabet. Many US websites, for example, would not allow you to make a purchase or subscribe to their newsletter if you entered an email address in Tamil or Hebrew. — AFP

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