For more than five hours on Monday, the world tasted life without Facebook and its apps.
In Mexico, politicians have been cut off from their constituents. In Turkey and Kenya traders could not sell their goods. And in Colombia, a nonprofit that uses WhatsApp to connect victims of gender-based violence to rescue services has found its work hampered.
“Because we have a team on the ground, we have been able to mitigate some of the more serious risks of today’s outage,” said Alex Berryhill, group director of digital operations, Cosas de Mujeres. “But that may not have been the case for hundreds of other hotlines around the world. Today was a big reminder: technologies are tools, not solutions. “
The Facebook outage on Monday was a worldwide demonstration of the importance of the company’s services in daily life. Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger have long been more than just a way to chat and share photos. They are essential platforms for doing business, organizing medical care, running virtual classes, running political campaigns, responding to emergencies and much more.
In parts of the developing world, the cost of the Facebook outage was particularly high. In India, Latin America and Africa, its services are essentially the Internet for many people – almost a public service, usually cheaper than a phone call and on which much of the communication and commerce of daily life depends.
The unease about a single company mediating so much human activity motivates much of the scrutiny surrounding Facebook.
In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission filed an antitrust complaint against the company, accusing it of being a monopoly that acquired Instagram and WhatsApp to ensure its dominance. Policymakers in the European Union are crafting sweeping regulations that would reduce corporate power.
In recent weeks, Facebook has come under fire after a whistleblower, Frances Haugen, shared internal documents indicating, among other things, that the company knew Instagram was making teenage body image problems worse, even though executives at the company were publicly trying to minimize the effects of the application. disadvantages.
The revelations drew more criticism from regulators and the public. On Tuesday, Congress heard testimony from Ms. Haugen on the impact of Facebook on young users.
Much of the recent criticism of Facebook has focused on the decisions that company executives make – or don’t make – regarding the governance, management and profitability of its platforms. But as Monday’s outage demonstrated, another consequence of Facebook’s size is that many more people are affected when there are technical failures like the ones the company claims are responsible for the disruption.
In Brussels, the hub of the European Union – where many officials have turned to rival messaging service Signal to communicate amid concerns over Facebook’s reach – the outage has led to a new round of calls for increased monitoring of the largest technological platforms.
“In the global digital space, everyone could experience a stop”, Thierry Breton, the European Commissioner responsible for drafting new technological regulations, said on twitter. “Europeans deserve better digital resilience through regulation, fair competition, enhanced connectivity and cybersecurity. “
In India, Brazil and other countries, WhatsApp has become so important to the functioning of society that regulators should treat it as a “utility,” said Parminder Jeet Singh, executive director of IT for Change, a technology-driven non-profit organization in Bengaluru, India. .
People in India and other Asian countries where Facebook apps are popular have largely slept during the blackout, which happened overnight for them. But Mr Singh said the disruption still shows why regulators need to monitor internet giants more closely.
Globally, an average of 2.76 billion people used at least one Facebook product every day in June, according to company statistics. WhatsApp is used to send more than 100 billion messages a day and has been downloaded nearly six billion times since 2014, when Facebook bought it, according to estimates by data company Sensor Tower.
India accounted for about a quarter of those installations, while another quarter was in Latin America, according to Sensor Tower. Only 4 percent, or 238 million downloads, were in the United States.
In Latin America, Facebook applications can be a lifeline in rural areas where mobile phone service is not yet available but the Internet is available, and in poor communities where people cannot afford mobile phones. mobile data but can find free internet connection.
Cosas de Mujeres, the Colombian non-profit association, has hundreds of interactions every month with Colombian women and Venezuelan migrant women who face domestic and emotional violence or are threatened with trafficking or sexual exploitation, said Ms Berryhill, the organization’s director of digital operations.
“Usually we have phone operators that receive messages from women all day long via WhatsApp, but that was not possible, and the women could not contact us,” she said.
María Elena Divas, a 51-year-old Venezuelan migrant in Bogotá, Colombia, uses WhatsApp to take orders for snacks like empanadas.
“I didn’t sell anything today,” Ms. Divas said.
All over Africa, Facebook’s apps are so popular that for many it’s the Internet. WhatsApp, the continent’s most popular messaging app, is a one-stop-shop for communicating with family, friends, colleagues, worshipers and neighbors.
In Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, everything from shoes and jewelry to plants and appliances can be ordered for delivery on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. In Johannesburg, sellers have been cut off from Facebook Marketplace, which is used to sell everything from used cars to wigs and even corrugated iron shacks, known colloquially as zozos.
WhatsApp usage has grown so much that at one point it accounted for almost half of all internet traffic in Zimbabwe. During Monday’s blackout, the chief spokesperson for the Tanzanian government used twitter to urge the public to “stay calm”.
“Our business has stopped,” said Lydia Mutune, owner of a pot and plant store in Nairobi that sells exclusively on Facebook and Instagram. “It was a wake-up call. It just showed me how totally my business and our lives are totally dependent on social media platforms.”
In some places, people said that while the disappearance of Facebook’s apps hampered their work, it also removed a loud distraction, making them feel better and more productive.
James Chambers initially panicked for Chez Angela, the Canadian bakery he and his wife own in Brandon, Manitoba. They post four to five times a day on Facebook and Instagram to attract customers to the store. But on Monday, he said, “as the day went on we actually found more people coming in and saying it was good to be offline.”
“We closed the day 30% above our normal Monday sale,” he added.
Drogasmil, a drugstore chain in Brazil, takes many prescriptions via WhatsApp, said Rafael Silva, Drogasmil pharmacist in Rio de Janeiro.
On Monday there weren’t any, but because he and his colleagues couldn’t chat on WhatsApp, the day was “more peaceful,” he said.
Jan Böhmermann, German actor, tweeted that he wanted Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp to stay offline forever. His post received nearly 30,000 likes.
Surveys show that WhatsApp is installed on almost every smartphone in Brazil and that most Brazilians with a phone check the app at least once every hour.
Restaurants take orders, supermarkets coordinate deliveries, and doctors, hairdressers and cleaners make appointments. During the pandemic, the app became a crucial tool for teachers to give private lessons to students in remote areas of the country. He has also been at the heart of the spread of disinformation.
In Russia, authorities said the blackout was evidence supporting the country’s crackdown on Western internet companies.
The disruptions “answer the question of whether we need our own social networks and internet platforms,” said Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry.
Yet in many places people have been struck by how the outage revealed their reliance on Facebook’s tools – and their vulnerability when the service is unavailable.
Selen Bayrak, owner of a small store in Istanbul that sells marmalades and spicy sauces, said 80% of her sales are normally made through Instagram. She estimated that she only managed to sell a quarter of what she could have sold yesterday if Instagram hadn’t been down.
In Mexico, many small town newspapers cannot afford print editions, so they post on Facebook instead. This left local governments with no physical outlet to post important announcements, so they also turned to Facebook, said Adrián Pascoe, political consultant.
A municipality for which Mr. Pascoe is consulting was unable to introduce its new services on Monday because the site was down. The announcement will take place on Wednesday instead, he said.
León David Pérez’s two businesses, including Polimatía, which offers online courses, rely on Facebook and Instagram to market their products. Customer service is handled on WhatsApp.
“The way businesses operate has been a huge change over the past 20 years,” David said. “Back then, we didn’t have an online community. Now we’re hyper-connected, but we rely on a few tech companies for everything. When WhatsApp or Facebook is down, we all go down.
The report was provided by Maria Abi-Habib, Ian austen, Lynsey chutel, Abdi Latif Dahir, Steven Grattan, Valerie Hopkins, Jack Nicas, Christopher F. Schuetze and Julie turkewitz.