The biggest gasps of disbelief might have probably been felt in economies such as India, which have boasted of some of the cheapest internet tariffs the world over.
Having mastered the fine art of communication via missed calls during the pre-data plan days, many mobile users have altogether abandoned the mobile phone for making actual GSM or tower-based calls anymore and rely on WhatsApp for both audio and video calls. For millions of users who run their businesses, from your neighbourhood kirana shop to the nearby restaurant owner who picks up your orders for the evening on WhatsApp, the instant messaging platform was nothing short of a lifeline for the local economy.
And it was exactly that backbone that got fractured, albeit for a few hours on Monday evening (IST). Of course, there was a domino effect that was witnessed in corporate India as well, which had just about started getting used to the hybrid idea of Work from Home/Office. Many official groups built for internal communications were left in the lurch as messages were suspended in a limbo, a digital netherworld of sorts, having neither been sent nor received. Interestingly, these developments are taking place at a very crucial juncture in Facebook’s evolution.
Just last week, a former product manager with Facebook went on record on the American TV news show 60 Minutes with damning revelations about how Facebook might have prioritised profits over public wellness, during its course of operations. The whistle-blower spilt the beans on how the social media platform was walking over reams of data that clearly indicated the impact of its apps on impressionable young minds vis-a-vis issues such as body image and body shaming. To add to this, Facebook clearly did not take punitive action regarding such major issues like clamping down on hate speech and misinformation. The confessions have reignited the conversation around how some companies have now become too big to fail, and too powerful to be taken to task.
The company which is known to be the second-largest digital advertising platform globally lost about $5.45 lakh per hour in US ad revenue during the outage, and its shares fell 4.9% on Monday, the biggest daily drop since November 2020. The CEO of the company Mark Zuckerberg also lost a whopping $6 bn in personal wealth on this day. The company’s last significant outage was in 2019, when a technical issue brought down its sites for over 24 hours. What is of course, genuinely scary is how we have all relied upon one company to take care of all our communication requirements, and that too in a seemingly ‘on the house’ manner.
Think about it, does any general user pay a rupee for using Facebook, WhatsApp or Instagram? If you’re not paying for it, you obviously are the product. An entire ecosystem of data gathering has been built around users of such services that profit off the users. But if the users themselves have been commercialised or rather commodified, where does the question of public wellness even feature in the discourse?
In the broader scheme of things, one of the takeaways of such outages could be a need to reassess our growing dependence on technology giants, and how they are fully capable of holding us to ransom in the event of any such system failure. One can only imagine how we might be tearing our hair out if Google and Gmail decided to go AWOL one day, thanks in no small measure to the copious amounts of critical personal data that we have vested with them. We desperately need a few Plan Bs, but we also need our Plan As to be responsible, accountable and conscionable.