One of the last messages that Vaiva Bezhan sent on Facebook Messenger on Monday afternoon, Central European Time, was a bit of a cliffhanger—and incredibly time sensitive.
The Lithuanian photojournalist is co-organizer of the Afghan Support Group, one of many volunteer initiatives trying to help evacuate vulnerable Afghans in the wake of the Taliban takeover by any means possible. She was writing to ask if she could add someone to a flight manifest for one of the few volunteer-coordinated evacuation flights still leaving the country.
But this crucial question would go unanswered for hours, after all of Facebook’s services—including Facebook.com, WhatsApp, Messenger, and Instagram—suddenly became unavailable from around 11:40 AM EST. The outage was down to changes to Facebook’s backbone routers, the firm said in a blog post. Those changes meant that traffic was not being properly directed by the Domain Name System (DNS), a tool that directs traffic and tracks addresses across the internet. In total, Facebook’s suite of apps and sites were down for almost six hours.
For many internet users in the United States, the outage was a minor annoyance. But for the millions of people around the world who rely on Facebook’s products to access the internet, including activists like Bezhan, the sudden downtime was far more serious.
For much of the world, Facebook has become “synonymous with the internet”, says Sarah Aoun, the vice president of security at the Open Technology Fund, a U.S. nonprofit that supports technology projects like the private browser Tor and encrypted message service Signal. That made the outage the equivalent of nothing less than “a big infrastructure collapse,” she says.
The outage also came at an inauspicious time for Facebook. On Sunday, just hours before the outage, the CBS television program 60 Minutes aired a highly-anticipated interview with a Facebook whistleblower, Francis Haugen, who has leaked a number of documents that suggested the firm knew that its products were bad for teen girls, among other revelations. She is due to testify before the Senate later today. Facebook is also fighting an antitrust investigation in the US that could force it to sell Instagram and WhatsApp.
More than 3.5 billion people around the world use Facebook’s suite of social networks and apps, including Facebook.com, Messenger app, Instagram, and WhatsApp, among others. The country with the largest population of Facebook users is India, with an estimated 340 million users. (The United States, by contrast, has an estimated 200 million users.)
This was by design. For years, Facebook has been working to expand internet access in the developing world—which would also expand its own user base. The company has explored the use of satellites, drone, and radio linked wireless networks. It has partnered with local telecommunication firms to improve physical internet infrastructure.
In 2013 Facebook launched Internet.org, an initiative that allowed users to access Facebook, and certain other websites, without incurring any data charges. This was part of Mark Zuckerberg’s grand plan to get the world online by providing internet access to the 85% of the world who, at the time, had access to cellular data.
But in 2016, the program (by now renamed Free Basics), was banned by India’s Telecom Regulatory Authority, which claimed that it violated net neutrality. Despite that setback, it has continued to roll out, with less fanfare, to other countries in the developing world. In 2018, Facebook said Internet.org had got 100 million people online. In 2019, FreeBasics was available in 65 countries, with around 30 in Africa. Last year, the firm began rolling out Facebook Discover, which allows internet users to access low-bandwidth traffic to all websites (not just Facebook properties,) even if they’ve run out of data.
Versions of these programs also exist in Afghanistan, where many new internet users equate Facebook, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp with the whole internet. Even among those who have broader access to the full web, Facebook’s suite of products still played a vital role. WhatsApp calls, for example, having long since replaced more expensive—and less secure—phone calls. Many small businesses rely on Facebook’s tools to sell and advertise their products.
All of this means that even temporary outages have a devastating effect, especially for activist and advocacy organizations—and people like Bezhan.
“A lot of underground planning and support is happening on social media,” says Bezhan, and much of this was via Facebook, WhatsApp, and the Messenger app. The outage interrupted her “efforts to provide Afghans with information, planning strategies on our next steps for evacuations, [and] connecting those in need.”
It was past midnight for Bezhan when Facebook began coming back to life, but even then, some of its functionalities, including search and notifications, were not yet available. She hadn’t heard back yet about whether she could add another name for a potential evacuation.
But she was also concerned about what her Afghan friends were feeling and thinking, with their main connection to the outside world suddenly severed. For weeks since the fall of Kabul, there had been rumors that the Taliban had cut access to the internet. “I bet they are creating rumors and coming up with stories about how the new government is blocking the media,” she says.
They wouldn’t be alone. Responding to similar concerns, a spokesperson for the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Ministry of Communication, took to Twitter to set the record straight: “The internet connection has not been cut,” he wrote at 4:05PM ET. “It is a global blackout crippling WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram. Other applications like Twitter are functioning normally. The same goes for the rest of the web.”