Users are complaining about problems with their internet providers – but they are probably the result of the ongoing blackout at Facebook.
The blackout has meant that not only Facebook but the other services it owns – Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger, and even Oculus and Workplace – have all been knocked offline.
Amid that, reports of problems at internet and phone companies began to surge. Tracking website Down Detector saw quickly rising reports of issues at T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T in the US, and at Virgin Media, BT, Vodafone, Sky and O2 in the UK.
Some news outlets rushed to report the stories as if they were another outage that had arrived at the same time as Facebook. But it is probably not a coincidence.
In fact, what is probably happening is that the outage has taken down the only things that a lot of people use on the internet, and to keep in touch. In turn, it looks like the internet is broken – but it doesn’t seem to be, at least in any widespread way.
The wide array of Facebook’s apps can cover just about anything people might do online, from messaging on WhatsApp to playing games in virtual reality through Oculus. As a result, an outage at Facebook can look like a problem with the whole internet, especially since it is not immediately obvious that they are all run by the same company, let alone reliant on the same infrastructure.
According to Mozilla’s ‘Internet Health Report’, four of the most used platforms are owned by Facebook. The main app is the most popular platform in the world, followed by YouTube, Facebook’s WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, and then Facebook-owned Instagram.
Questionnaires have repeatedly shown that – as a result of that domination – Facebook is regularly confused with the internet. The effect appears especially pronounced in developing countries, where Facebook’s various apps are often easier to access than other sites.
Facebook has aimed to encourage that with a project called Internet.org that it launched in line with a range of communications companies, and which is made available through an app called Free Basics. That provides access to a range of different services for free – with Facebook prominent among them, though not by any measure the only one.
The domination of Facebook over the internet has led to increased scrutiny from regulators, who fear that its dominance could cause problems both for the health of the internet and the wellbeing of people who use it. Those concerns have led to pressure to break up the company, including from the US Federal Trade Commission, which has said that Facebook should be forced to sell Instagram and WhatsApp.
But actually separating the different apps might be difficult, for the same reason that today’s outage is so widespread: the infrastructure underpinning the separate apps is closely shared, and hard to unpick. That might make it more difficult for regulators to require them to be broken up, as well as meaning that an outage at the main Facebook company takes down all those other apps at the same time.