Digital construct needs rethinking

Last week’s global social media outage is a lesson on how monopolistic practices impacts everyone.

MOST Malaysians weren’t even aware that their Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp accounts were down from midnight last Monday. When they woke up on Tuesday morning, the social media apps under the Facebook behemoth were largely restored. For more than seven hours, the services were unavailable.

It was the biggest “outage” ever in the history of the company.

When the apps blinked out, half of mankind was affected. Lives were disrupted and businesses suffered. When the services were inaccessible, humans simply ceased to connect with each other. Humanity has become too dependent on social media.

Apparently, Facebook and its staple of apps are becoming part of our lives, for better or worse. We can’t live without them, whether we like it or not. Modern human existence has been defined by them. Suddenly, we realised how Mark Zuckerberg has an overbearing impact, literally, on us as a whole.

For a decade or so, Facebook has created itself as the linchpin platform with messaging, live streaming, virtual reality, online shopping and much more on the Internet. It too has rewritten the history of advertising.

For media organisations, it is almost a death knell. The Facebook-Google duopoly is destroying the news business. Companies are shifting their ad spending to social media and digital platforms, leaving mere leftovers for news companies.

In 2019, Facebook’s revenue was RM223.3bil, 80% of which was from digital advertising. Google on the other hand registered a revenue of RM47.2bil, 85% from advertisement.

One thing is certain – the world has never seen monopolies this formidable before. The tech giants are the new colonisers of the world. And this time it is affecting our minds and psyche as well.

What happened last Monday has happened before but not in that magnitude. Technology outages are not uncommon but as one analyst pointed out, “to have so many apps go dark from the world’s largest social media company at the same time was highly unusual”.

Moral of the story: even the most powerful Internet company is vulnerable. The stage of precarity that moulds our digital economy is being questioned as never before. The entire digital construct needs rethinking.

That leads us to the big “M” issue. Monopolistic practices are dangerous. Allowing one or two tech giants to have an overbearing impact on humanity is morally and ethically wrong. We need to move beyond the current regimes.

Russia, China and in parts, Korea and Japan are either not using those apps entirely or having their own apps as alternatives. They survived the global meltdown.

The recent crisis, too, pointed to the company’s internal problems.

It was reported that Facebook’s staffers couldn’t even access their email or open their office doors during the outage.

Not to mention scrapping at least 5% of Zuckerberg’s personal wealth (or merely RM24bil) as the result of a jittery market in the aftermath. On the other hand, at least RM200bil was wiped off the company’s market value.

It is already a bad time for Facebook when one of its employees, Frances Haugen, became a whistle-blower.

Testifying before a Senate sub-committee in Washington, Haugen provided an unvarnished look into the inner workings of Facebook. Her testimony was damaging enough and unfortunately for Facebook, happened as the company was struggling to explain the outage that affected its users.

Haugen told the senators: “I’m here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy.”

She added: “The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won’t make the necessary changes.”

Prior to that, she anonymously leaked thousand of pages of sensitive documents to the Asian Wall Street Journal. It was only on Sunday that she revealed herself as the whistle-blower when she appeared on 60 Minutes.

Like the 2018 Cambridge Analytica debacle, her expose posed serious problems for the company. Her accusation that Facebook’s top management has misled the public and withheld critical information, thus cannot be trusted, is a bombshell.

She united US lawmakers on both sides of the political divide on the matter. US lawmakers agreed to hold Facebook to account. Perhaps there will be legislative proposals or Bills to be introduced to ensure tech giants be held more accountable.

Some are even looking at the parallel of the “Big Tobacco” legislations to reign in tobacco companies in the 90s. The hearings some argue is the “Big Tobacco moment” for tech companies.

We still need Facebook and its apps, yet we demand some semblance of control over its impact on our lives. Tech giants must learn to share (information, revenue, even responsibilities), the very principle that these companies came into being in the first place.

Sharing is a healthy thing, monopoly is not.

Johan Jaaffar is a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. And a diehard rugby fan. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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