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Facebook’s global outage wasn’t the result of a hack, but big political questions lurk behind it

‘Public’ Internet relies on private networks and technical protocols that have to work in sync

- October 7, 2021

When politicians talk about Facebook, they usually focus on disinformation and related content problems. This week’s massive outage — in which Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp were unavailable across the world — suggests that an equally consequential issue is that society’s ability to function now depends upon the resiliency of the digital infrastructure of the Internet that platform companies such as Facebook rely upon.

A slew of acronyms like IP, DNS, BGP and ASNs conceal a complex system that everyone takes for granted — until it goes wrong. Here is the bigger story behind Monday’s blackout — and what it means for human security.

The “public” Internet is made of private networks and technical protocols

People think of Facebook as a package of platform services that somehow exists magically in the “cloud.” But Facebook isn’t just a social media company — it operates its own enormous private network. The same is true of Google, as well as large media companies, cloud computing companies and content distribution networks that few people outside the industry have ever heard of.

The Internet seems like a unified public space — but it is a network of separate private networks made up of cables, switches, routers, interconnection points, systems of public key cryptography, secure buildings that house root servers, and enormous warehouses hosting servers and massive air conditioning systems.

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Agreed-upon technical standards ensure that someone in one part of the world can reach anyone else, regardless of type of network or device. Networks use an approach called “packet switching” to transmit information, breaking up emails or images into small units called packets — which, like an envelope, contain data and some administrative information such as an Internet Protocol (IP) address for where to send the packet. The Internet Protocol is the standard establishing the format for this addressing system so that information can be routed anywhere in the world.

Networks are called “autonomous systems,” routing domains that collectively explain where collections of IP addresses can be reached. Each network uses a standard called Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) to tell the rest of the world what resources can be reached and which route can be taken through that particular network.

And the Domain Name System (DNS) provides a kind of phone book for the Internet. It consists of a massive distributed system of domain name servers, which translates human-friendly domain names such as “washingtonpost.com” into the strings of numbers that the underlying network itself uses to route and locate information.

All this combined to take Facebook down

This complexity of systems contributed to Facebook’s blackout. According to Facebook, a command during routine maintenance “unintentionally took down all the connections in our backbone network,” cutting off its data centers from the rest of the Internet and leading to a cascade of events. The outage triggered Facebook’s DNS servers to stop answering queries, meaning the servers stopped translating requested sites into associated IP addresses.

Facebook’s network, in turn, stopped advertising routes to its sites to the external world via Border Gateway Protocol. Without the ability to answer DNS queries or advertise associated Internet addresses via BGP, Facebook essentially disappeared from the Internet with no way for users to reach Facebook.com, Whatsapp.com and other key addresses. The network outage also meant that Facebook’s own engineers lost access to many of the tools that they needed to restore services, and they were also slowed down by internal security measures designed to stop unauthorized users from gaining access to its systems.

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The politicization of technical infrastructure

These systems aren’t just important because they serve as the digital scaffolding upon which all economic, political and social systems depend. Technical infrastructure is also increasingly a proxy for political power. The Internet was designed to be decentralized, distributed and subject to competition among many companies adhering to common standards. In practice, the Internet’s infrastructure has developed concentrated choke points for carrying out surveillance or blocking content.

Governments have regularly used the DNS to censor information or block access to unlawful content, such as pirated movies. The DNS is distributed in a hierarchical manner across many institutions and systems, but — like other aspects of the Internet’s underlying architecture — it also creates a concentration point for content control. Instead of directly taking down content, the DNS can be modified to simply redirect the request for that content elsewhere, such as a law enforcement message. For example, the U.S. government recently seized the domain names of sites linked to Iranian government propaganda. This political turn to the DNS reflects a broader trend of the politicization of infrastructure, exemplified by Amazon Web Services’ decision in January to take down the entire social media site Parler.

The centrality of the Internet Protocol means that it has long been at the heart of struggles to control the Internet. These include very recent concerns, whether founded or not, that China wants to co-opt and redesign IP, through a set of discussions it called “New IP.”

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Sometimes the kinds of problems that Facebook experienced have been because of “false routes” advertised by a network or leaked beyond its intended audience. This can happen unintentionally — or maliciously. False BGP routing instructions have sometimes blocked access to legitimate sites, either accidentally, or because some government has ordered network operators to advertise false routes to censor information. Internet history is replete with reports of Internet traffic suddenly rerouted through China or Facebook, Google and Amazon redirected through Russia. BGP is a national security issue.

Internet infrastructure problems also have real physical consequences. An outage in cyberspace can block access to medical devices, limit food supply and physical security, and prevent critical industrial systems from functioning.

Media and government attention tends to focus on social media content problems, while ignoring problems in the underlying infrastructure. While this structure is complicated and technically concealed, it has enormous consequences for national security and human security. This security should not be taken for granted, as the Facebook-Instagram-WhatsApp outage illustrates.

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Laura DeNardis is a professor in the School of Communication at American University and the author of “The Internet in Everything: Freedom and Security in a World with No Off Switch” (Yale University Press, 2020).