Facebook's Super-Outage Comes as News Breaks of a U.S. Criminal Investigation Into Them
By Zak Doffman
Even as users worldwide battled to connect to their Facebook and Instagram accounts overnight, the New York Times broke the news that “federal prosecutors are conducting a criminal investigation into data deals Facebook struck with some of the world’s largest technology companies.”
An unfortunate coincidence though this is, it’s an apt one. The omens for a sea-change in social media’s apparent license to roam freely around the world and across billions of users are now there for all to see.
The crux of these latest allegations relates to secret data deals that provided leading technology companies with access to seemingly private user data – including lists of friends and private messages. It is yet more of the same post-Cambridge Analytica – private data being treated as a tradable commodity, with no thought to the implications or ethics of doing so. Perhaps time has now belatedly been called and the leading protagonists will be finally held to account. We will see.
The Facebook technical outage extended beyond 14 hours and is believed to be the largest since 2008. Back then the platform had fewer than 200 million users Now it has more than 2 billion and has been integrated into every imaginable facet of users’ lives. The main platform, as well as the company’s messaging apps and Instagram, were all affected.
Facebook generates around $200 million in daily revenues — an unexplained outage of this kind could be extremely costly and could damage confidence.
“We’re aware that some people are currently having trouble accessing the Facebook family of apps. We’re working to resolve the issue as soon as possible,” the company tweeted, adding. “We’re focused on working to resolve the issue as soon as possible but can confirm that the issue is not related to a DDoS attack.”
On Thursday morning the world appeared to be getting back to normal. Service was restored, photos were shared, messages were posted, and the news hit the headlines of another social media data scandal.
… and the grand jury investigation
The platform was restored just in time to report the news of a U.S. criminal investigation. Two well-known smartphone manufacturers have been subpoenaed, according to two anonymous sources speaking to the New York Times. The newspaper has previously reported on the data-sharing arrangements (many of which had come to an end) that Facebook entered into with upwards of 150 different technology companies.
This was a win-win for the social media giant. Trading data for prominence, access and integration.
In response to the article, Facebook tweeted that: “it’s already been reported that there are ongoing federal investigations, including by the Dept of Justice. As we’ve said, we’re cooperating with investigators and take those probes seriously. We’ve provided public testimony, answered questions, and pledged that we’ll continue to do so.”
According to reports, the Eastern District of New York where the grand jury has been convened declined to provide any comment with the investigation in process.
The PR woes continue
This news is simply the next step in the sorry tale of social media’s casual approach to user privacy and data integrity. Facebook thought nothing of allowing search engines access to the details about users’ friends, other companies were provided with access to private messages.
Last month, the Washington Post reported that “the Federal Trade Commission and Facebook are negotiating over a multi-billion dollar fine that would settle the agency’s investigation into the social media giant’s privacy practices, according to two people familiar with the probe.”
When Facebook reported stellar results for the last quarter of 2018, it looked set to put its 2018 PR train wreck behind it. But since then we have seen the data scandal of a Facebook Research VPN paying teens and young adults for access to their data and an admission by the company to U.S. senators last month that they had lied as to the extent of this.
Meanwhile, Instagram, seen as the shining star in Facebook’s portfolio, has come under increasing attack for lack of regulation around the images being shared and the protection of young users.
Still, this is not yet a patch on 2018 which saw the Cambridge Analytica scandal lift the lid on social media’s trade in data and the potential for that to be misused. As venture capitalist Roger McNamee, an early influence on Mark Zuckerberg, told Time in January: ”To feed its AI and algorithms, Facebook gathered data anywhere it could. Before long, Facebook was spying on everyone, including people who do not use Facebook… Facebook sometimes traded the data to get better business deals.”
Regulation or break-up?
Last month, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren put forward a populist proposal to break-up the social media and tech giants, saying: “today’s big tech companies have too much power — too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy. They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else. And in the process, they have hurt small businesses and stifled innovation.”
It’s now looking like an argument that could generate increasing traction.
In 2009, in an interview with Wired, Mark Zuckerberg said that “when I started Facebook from my dorm room in 2004, the idea that my roommates and I talked about all the time was a world that was more open. We believed that people being able to share the information they wanted and having access to the information they wanted is just a better world… No one wants to live in a surveillance society.”
That interview has not aged well. The regulation – if not yet a break-up – of social media is now inevitable. And it’s about time.