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Facebook everything

5 Oct 2021 By Una Galani

Facebook’s outages lay bare the risks its ubiquity poses to users. Nowhere is that vulnerability more keenly felt than in India, the $920 billion social network’s top market by users.

Take WhatsApp. Its messaging service reaches some 530 million local users, per the Indian government. Thanks to the rapid uptick in digital adoption and data rates among the cheapest in the world, Indians are long past solely using the service to send “good morning” messages complete with tacky pictures of flowers.

Professionals rely on the tool for communicating with groups of colleagues, even when companies have provided internal messaging tools. It’s a preferred means of making a telephone call. Countless schools shuttered by the pandemic use WhatsApp for online learning.

Businesses depend on the app for everything from selling fresh produce to sending boarding passes to billing their customers and facilitating payments. Facebook and Instagram are equally relied on to the point where businesses shun having standalone websites. Given how integral the company’s services have become, serious outages can be economically disruptive.

India is building public-good, open-access digital infrastructure to democratise payments and more, but these need private companies like Facebook and Alphabet’s Google to provide the interface with users.

Until now, India’s focus on curbing Facebook’s power has focused on policing content. WhatsApp launched a legal challenge against official efforts to force it to break its encryption, for example. It’s contesting rules that may hold its Indian staff criminally liable if the company can’t identify which users send a specific message. India was the first large market to take strong action on the issue.

Monday’s disruption is New Delhi’s’ cue to address too-crucial-to-fail risks, too. The National Payments Corporation of India had some foresight in forcing a go-slow approach for WhatsApp to roll out its payments service, underscoring fears it could quickly become the dominant player.

Financial markets may provide other regulatory tips. Large lender $118 billion HDFC Bank, for example, was banned in December for months from enlisting new credit card customers because of technology failures. Similar punishment could be adapted for tech platforms.

Whatever actions India’s government takes to deal with the clear and present risk of Facebook’s power, they’re likely to be closely watched by countries around the world.


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