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  1. Science & Tech
1 March 2017

Amazon’s server outage highlights the major problem with today’s internet

When the world’s biggest websites go down, people start noticing who holds the plug.

By Amelia Tait

For a few hours yesterday, Amazon’s Simple Storage Solution (S3) cloud service experienced what the company called “high error rates”. In practice, this meant two things. Firstly, many of the world’s biggest websites – such as Medium, Business Insider, Imgur, and Quora – went down, and secondly, quite a lot of people realised just how big Amazon is.

Far from just a website on which you buy your replacement toothbrush heads, Amazon has its fingers in many technological pies, from e-readers and smart speakers to Amazon Web Services (AWS) – the section of the company which rents cloud computing services. In practice, this means that 150,000 sites and services – including Netflix and Spotify – rely on Amazon to work.

This isn’t, in itself, a bad thing; it is much easier for smaller companies to use Amazon’s services than attempt to run their own, and the fact Amazon’s last major outage was in 2015 is actually quite impressive. But yesterday’s events do highlight one of the biggest problems about today’s internet, namely: eggs, basket, all in one.

Over the last few years, a handful of truly gigantic corporations (I don’t even have to name them for you to know who they are) have monopolised the internet. In exchange for convenience, we have handed our entire online lives over to a few giants, and blindly trusted them to behave themselves. We have allowed them to crush and absorb their competitors, and use their power to promote themselves above all others.

Earlier this week, Google’s sister company Jigsaw launched its online troll fighting AI, Perspective. In theory, the tool can weed out hateful comments before they see the light of day, but in practice it often incorrectly identifies offensive language when there is none, classing “I fucking love you man. Happy birthday” as 93 percent “toxic”.  Yet even if the tool worked perfectly, it makes little sense to entrust the power of what is, in no uncertain terms, censorship, to a company that is currently facing a $3.4bn fine from the EU for untrustworthy practices.

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Over the last few months, it seems we have begun to open our eyes to the power of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. In January, Fark.com complained that Google Adsense turned off the site’s adverts – effectively cutting off its revenue – after, it alleged, Google mistakenly identified an image on Fark as a policy violation.

Google doesn’t have to be some looming, cackling corporation for these things to happen. Nonetheless, placing so much power in the hands of one company is inherently troublesome.

For many, yesterday’s outage was an wake-up call to just how big Amazon is, but many retailers, particularly booksellers, have long been aware of its power. Consumers, however, must wake up to how the algorithms implemented by Facebook, Google, and Amazon control and influence what we see and experience online. Amazon’s server outage is not, of course, an example of anything nefarious or terrible, but it highlights just how much of the internet is in the hands of a handful of companies. These companies are colonising the Wild West that the internet used to be, and it would be foolish to assume that this will be without consequence for our daily lives.