Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp are back up. But their outage is an opportunity.
Monday's widespread outage of Facebook-owned platforms shows us how fragile our internet ecosystem is.
Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp all went down on Monday, another major setback for Facebook, as it deals with Senate hearings on child safety, a high-profile whistleblower and ongoing antitrust disputes.
While there’s no evidence yet that the Facebook outage was caused by a malicious cyberattack, the widespread internet outage shows us how fragile our internet ecosystem is. And it proves once again why the U.S. must invest more in internet infrastructure and support policies that help create a stronger global internet for the future.
The good news is that the outage that happened Monday morning was likely not caused by a cyberattack, unlike recent high profile incidents, such as the ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline that occurred in May. Colonial Pipeline paid a $5 million ransom to hackers. And just last month, a grieving mother sued an Alabama hospital, Springfield Medical Center, in what some have called the first credible claim that a person’s death was caused by hackers.
It’s important to note, though, that sometimes companies do not announce the full details of a cyberattack while an investigation is ongoing. Regardless of whether the Facebook shutdown was caused by mistake or malice, it is disturbing that the temporary shutdown of one single company was able to affect so much of the internet.
Facebook will likely be able to resolve the problem in a matter of hours, unlike their other ongoing problems with regulators and loss of consumer trust. Colonial Pipeline, too, was able to resolve its problem — but at a cost. No system can be perfectly secure, but luckily, even the worst cyberattacks can usually be resolved. However, the more we use connected technologies, relying on cloud computing and the Internet of Things for more of our lives, the more our cybersecurity risks increase.
The Facebook outage and the Colonial Pipeline hack prove again how important cybersecurity is, for individuals, corporations, and for national and global security. The internet is a fragile ecosystem built on a worldwide network of undersea cables and distributed servers. It is easy to forget that the internet is not merely a conceptual network, but that physical infrastructure exists and that it matters.
Like many large complex systems, the internet as a concept evades our grasp sometimes. Policymakers rarely speak about internet infrastructure but choose instead to win points with constituents by talking up the dangers of Big Tech, Section 230, internet piracy, social media networks for kids and other inflammatory subjects. Internet infrastructure, in comparison, sounds much less exciting — but that’s exactly why we need to invest more in it.
Cybersecurity is integral to national security, and internet infrastructure is critical infrastructure. It’s important that we invest in internet infrastructure, including expanding broadband and fiber access to all Americans. The online demands of the pandemic have showed us how crucial internet access is, and it is shameful that so many communities (particularly, rural, low-income, and Black and brown communities) still lack internet access in America. Internet access is a human right, and investing in internet infrastructure can help us protect that right for all.
Additionally, we must do more to invest in cybersecurity and technology. We need more cybersecurity professionals in government, and we need more students and researchers to study cybersecurity. This also means investment in education for the next generation of cybersecurity practitioners and the next generation of technologists and entrepreneurs who could help the U.S. remain a leader in internet infrastructure.
We also need policies that support the technology industry. The internet is a physical network, and it does matter who controls those physical servers and cables. For example, the U.S. is already behind China in the 5G race, partially because we haven’t subsidized or supported homegrown 5G companies in the same way China has. Internet infrastructure is not only an economic concern, but it is also a matter of national and global security.
Finally, even if we develop the strongest internet industry in the world, and the strongest telecommunications industry to boot, we will still need alternatives. Temporary outages for one company — Facebook — lead to millions of people unable to access Facebook, Instragram or WhatsApp, three major platforms for communication, commerce and more. This certainly lends credence to arguments in favor of regulatory measures to support more competition in the internet space. No internet company should become too big to fail.
Regulators should do better, but Congress should also act. It is time to consider how to build a public internet as a supplement, extension and alternative to our current corporate-dominated internet industry. A better internet is possible, and it is not too late to start.