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Facebook vs the internet

The Village Explainer
Facebook vs the internet
By Dan McGarry • Issue #59 • View online
The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.
Today we take a quick look at how the internet’s ramshackle and trust-based bone structure makes it so fragileand so resilient.

So Facebook and Insta disappeared for a while there. How? Surprisingly easily. Here’s an explanation from someone who knows more about these things than either of us:
What Happened to Facebook, Instagram, & WhatsApp? – Krebs on Security
If you really want to geek out over the Border Gateway Protocol, check out what the gang at CloudFlare have to say about it. Or you can look at this early post-mortem from Netblocks, who monitor outages the world over.
Amusingly, many of Facebook’s building entrances, rooms and other workspaces are linked via the same network that they use to talk to the world. So when panicked staff went rushing in to try to fix things, they found their badges didn’t work.
Even people inside the buildings couldn’t access some of the secure rooms that housed key equipment.
This is because FB’s network diagram looks something like this:
This isn’t the first time the company’s massive and organically developed infrastructure has been brought down by mischance. Behold the misadventures of Ms Winnie W Wu, who managed to bring the organisation to its knees on her very first day at work:
Alec Muffett
I am seeing a regrettable amount of conspiracy-mongering regarding #facebookdown, so I would like to offer this juicy story; link attached.
This wasn’t the first time BGP has brought Facebook to its knees. In 2008, Pakistan was piqued enough to attempt to disrupt access to the social media service for the entire nation.
Unfortunately, it did the moral equivalent of wearing its pants outside its trousers, and blackholed Facebook for the entire world instead.
How Pakistan knocked YouTube offline (and how to make sure it never happens again) - CNET
BGP’s friability has been a big enough worry for network operators and managers to scream about it—into the void, apparently—for a generation now.
I agree with the risk analysis. If we ever do reach a moment of Great Power conflict, one of the first things that will be attacked is our civil communications infrastructure. And it will fall in minutes.
The internet, however, is designed to remain robust in the face of such attacks, so I expect it would be rebuilt in a matter of weeks. We could get back to a late-90’s internet extremely quickly, with ad hoc connections and routes snowballing into something like a real internet in a very short time.
The ad hoc, trust-based, open and accepting basis of the internet may be its greatest flaw, but it’s also its greatest asset.
Kinda like this....
Kinda like this....
The network will largely survive, but the globe-bestriding behemoths who mediate our access would worst affected. The internet could grow back into something fundamentally different.
Something that doesn’t need them.
It used to be that being big meant managing your own supply chain. Pre-internet online services such as CompuServe and America Online did this.
But the internet commoditised communications, to the point where it was impossible to monopolise it. The very existence of free, and freely shared, communications protocols made the global predominance of the internet near-inevitable.
Until the last decade, the vulnerability that preoccupied me the most was not the internet itself, but the cables it ran across. I’ve written a about this on numerous occasions in the past.
Selling democracy by the byte | THE SCRIPTORVM
But now I’m starting to think we’ll soon be facing another additional challenge.
Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Tencent, Ant and a small army of second-rankers all rely on a ubiquitous internet. I worry that the lesson they will take from outages like this is that they need to re-work this hodge-podge of hippy protocols into something more respectable—something more closely resembling them.
Microsoft tried to do this in the late ‘90s with its infamous 'Embrace, Extend, Extinguish’ approach to internet standards. They’d take things like HTML, the markup language that your browser is using right now to display these words, and kiiinnnda support it. That is, they’d cover the basics, but they’d add some special sauce of their own in an effort to separate themselves from the herd, and make people rely on their software.
They didn’t win. And that is amazing, when you consider how heavily stacked in their favour the odds seemed to be.
Instead we got Linux, an entire operating system that you’re probably using some part of, either on your phone, on the server that’s delivering this content, or on your Mac, if you swing that way.
We got Free and Open Source Software, stuff that runs on Linux (and dozens of other OSes), that’s mostly free of charge to use, customise and contribute to.
We got a remarkable flowering of creativity and cooperation that made this connected world possible.
But that is in the early stages of decline. We continue to use Linux and FOSS, but companies are drifting away from it, or compromising it by mixing in non-free extensions.
They were always a little leery of the Free-as-in-Freedom thing. (“Yeah, but what do we own??” a boss of mine once asked.)
So Android is becoming estranged from its Linux parent. Microsoft, who once described Linux as ‘a cancer’, is now selling integration tools designed to… embrace and extend Linux into a Windows-friendly space. Android phone makers are finding new an inventive ways to stop people installing their own software on them.
Companies valued in the trillions are basing their revenue streams on inserting themselves into literally every interaction we have with the outside world.
Where in the past the internet promised DISintermediation—getting rid of the brick-and-mortar middleman—now the main services are entirely predicated on mediation. Literally all they do is glue human interactions together in a way that simplifies and amplifies the attention humans crave.
They don’t want us sharing with others, they want us sharing with them. Sharing without them is competition, and competition is The Other.
It won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen completely, but I think the lesson some companies will take from outages like this, and from the technical success of China’s efforts to mediate the lives of its citizens, is that control is essential to survival.
Facebook has the power to do this today. For a large swathe of the developing world, no Facebook == no internet.
Zuck knows it. The question is whether the company will have its Murdoch moment and unrepentantly embrace, extend and extinguish the internet that gave birth to it, or whether it will allow itself to be embraced and eaten in its turn.
Knowing what we know about that gang, I’d say they’ll make a play for option 1. And I suspect that Google and Amazon will play along long enough for things to get dangerous.
Did you enjoy this issue?
Dan McGarry

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

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Dan McGarry - Port Vila, Vanuatu