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Metaverse, interrupted

5 Oct 2021 By Richard Beales

Mark Zuckerberg can’t catch a break lately. The Facebook boss wants to turn the two-dimensional internet into a metaverse where “instead of just viewing content, you are in it,” according to an interview with the Verge. But hot on the heels of an exposé of some uncomfortable internal documents provided by a whistleblower who is about to appear before the U.S. Congress, his entire company went dark on two-dimensional screens.

The Facebook and Instagram social networks, plus messaging service WhatsApp, were kaput for hours on Monday. It’s easy to dismiss the $920 billion company’s advertising-funded outlets as vehicles for cat pictures and selfies. But plenty of folks, including government officials, rely on WhatsApp as a primary means of communication. And Facebook is the main way some businesses reach customers. So the outage matters.

It raises all kinds of questions, like how – according to the Krebs on Security website – someone inside Facebook deleted key data that helps computers find the company’s destinations online. It also brings into sharp focus the lightly regulated way the internet works.

That’s a factor in the web’s rapid development and increasing usefulness in fields from messaging to finance to home automation. But it’s also what provoked Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, to provide documents to the Wall Street Journal and speak at a Senate hearing set for Tuesday. She will ask lawmakers to regulate Facebook in part because the pressures experienced on social networks like Instagram can do great harm to teenage girls.

Facebook’s downtime raises the question of whether it and other internet giants matter enough to be regulated more like utilities. Just as some banks are considered systemically important, perhaps some of what the likes of Facebook, Alphabet-owned Google and cloud-services behemoths Amazon.com and Microsoft do has become critical to the functioning of the economy. Meanwhile, lawmakers are also considering whether their activities may be anticompetitive.

For many people, a day or two off Facebook is not a big deal. But a similar breakdown at a huge provider of cloud services could cause widespread trouble, as lesser interruptions have shown before. The internet is a hodge-podge of best efforts, often profit-oriented services. Some of them may now be too crucial to fail.

 

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