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19 March 2021updated 04 Oct 2021 5:03pm

The Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp outage exposes the perils of monopoly power

The outage provides a stark reminder of the risks of handing control of so much of our digital infrastructure to one company.

By Oscar Williams

When Mark Zuckerberg testified before the US Senate in October 2018, the Republican senator Lindsey Graham asked him if he thought Facebook was a monopoly. “Certainly it doesn’t feel like that to me,” Zuckerberg replied in a notably limp rebuttal.

At the time, Facebook and its executives were still reeling from the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the primary criticisms of Zuckerberg’s empire concerned data privacy. But over the subsequent two and a half years, the company’s market power has become an ever greater source of concern for politicians and regulators.

Today, it is not just US senators who are worried about the company’s anticompetitive practices. The US Federal Trade Commission announced on 9 December that it was suing Facebook for illegally monopolising the personal social networking market. The company has nearly three billion users and owns four of the five most popular social networking platforms, having acquired WhatsApp and Instagram and spun off Facebook Messenger into its own app. 

When we discuss the rise of monopoly power in the tech industry, we typically contemplate the impact it has on entrepreneurs, advertisers and adjacent industries, such as news media, which has struggled to compete with Facebook and Google in the realm of online advertising. But because Facebook’s services are offered for free, the impact of its monopoly on users is often overlooked.

Facebook’s outage on Friday evening (19 March), however, made it impossible to ignore. The disruption, which hit Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram at once, lasted just over an hour, but it provided a stark reminder of the perils of handing control of so much of our digital social infrastructure to one company. 

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Facebook is currently in the process of unifying the technology that underpins its portfolio of apps. As part of these plans, it is updating the WhatsApp privacy policy to allow for some limited data sharing between the encrypted messaging service and Facebook itself. 

[See also: Shoshana Zuboff on why Big Tech is the biggest threat to democracy]

The move, which has been delayed amid a privacy uproar, will be a boon for businesses who use Facebook and, in the future WhatsApp, to communicate with customers. It will also help to reinforce Facebook’s position as a leader in online advertising.

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But as Friday’s outage shows us, there are risks associated with the ever deepening integration of some of the world’s most valuable communications infrastructure. And while this outage was brief, the next could last much longer.

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