Monday’s major Facebook outage shows what the consequences are if things go wrong with a party that so many people and companies depend on. Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp are popular in Europe, but also in parts of Southeast Asia. The disruption there means the loss of social contact, income for companies and for some access to what they consider to be the internet.
“If you don’t have the money to be online, limited internet access is still better than no access at all.” With these words, Facebook director Mark Zuckerberg motivated the Free Basics initiative in 2015.
Under that name, Facebook offers a limited, free version of the internet, together with providers in African and Southeast Asian countries in particular. The initiative was formerly called Internet.org and is meant to get people who can’t afford the internet online.
The seemingly noble cause was not warmly received by everyone, as users can only visit pre-approved websites, including Facebook itself. Opponents even called it a deliberate attempt in the Indian newspaper Hindustan Times to convince hundreds of millions of people that Facebook and the internet are one and the same.
The fierce criticism of Free Basics stems from research into internet use in Southeast Asia. In addition, residents of Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand stated that they were not internet users, but were on Facebook.
WhatsApp is extremely popular in Malaysia, for example. This also applies to India and Indonesia, while WhatsApp is much less used in countries such as the United States or China.
The Facebook failure is “many times worse for Southeast Asian people living in other countries” and thus losing contact with their loved ones, India-based tech journalist Pranav Dixit holds a mirror up to the West.
Also from a commercial point of view, the failure impact. For example, a meal delivery company in India could no longer request orders due to the delivery, notes The New York Times. His company is too dependent: becoming customers goes through Facebook and handle ordering via WhatsApp.
This undertaking is not the only one. Facebook’s popularity already led researchers to conclude in 2013 that Facebook’s popularity brought with it a new form of online retail, which relies on Facebook platforms to do business. A raise? Then no income.
South East Asia is politically a difficult region
For Facebook, Southeast Asia is a commercially attractive – because so many people live here – but politically difficult region. For example, in 2016, where Zuckerberg defended the limited free internet, Free Basics caught the eye of criticism.
The United Nations (UN) is investigating the role of Facebook in the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar. The company is said to have continuously acted against hate messages on its platforms that have contributed to the violence against the Muslim minority there.
In the same country, after taking power in February, the army closed down access to Facebook to prevent organized rebellion. It shows that Facebook is an important platform in the region, not only socially and commercially, but also politically.
How dependent a population can be becomes clear when people start to taste in the dark due to the failure completely, as is the case in Myanmar, writes CNA journalist May Wong on Twitter.
NetBlocks, an organisation that monitors accessibility of the internet, especially around censorship, also points out the risk of Facebook’s dominant power. Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp are out of the picture.
The consequences for the freedom of communication and the internet have been known to Facebook for years. “Facebook and the internet are mixed up in some places,” Facebook’s managing director Sheryl Sandberg acknowledged in 2015 against the Wall Street Journal.
No access to Facebook means no access to the internet, while the ability to go online in the modern world is sometimes seen as a human right.