For a few minutes on the evening of Feb. 7, it seemed as if most of the Internet had imploded: users trying to access CNN, Gawker, NBC News, The Huffington Post, and other popular Websites found themselves redirected to a Facebook page reading, “An error occurred. Please try again later.”
The issue was fixed within an hour. “For a short period of time, there was a bug that redirected people logging in with Facebook from third party sites,” read the social network’s statement about the outage, widely circulated to news outlets. “The issue was quickly resolved and Login with Facebook is now working as usual.”
Aside from that vague allusion to a “bug,” Facebook’s statement offered precious little explanation for the outage. But pundits and analysts generally think it had something to do with Facebook Connect.
Untold numbers of Websites feature Facebook Connect, an API that allows users to login using their Facebook accounts. That’s a vulnerability hiding inside a convenience: if something goes wrong on Facebook’s end, it’s possible that huge swaths of the Web could go down. And here’s the frightening part: while the Feb. 7 outage was relatively short, imagine what would happen if it had endured for quite some time: everything from news Websites to shopping portals rendered inoperative, impacting ad revenue and peoples’ ability to get information. (On the other hand, worker productivity might spike, at least for those workers who don’t rely on the Internet to complete their daily workload.)
Such are the perils lurking behind the concept of an ultra-connected Internet, where a number of properties rely on each other in order to operate effectively. The Facebook outage also illustrates the enormous power held by the social network, which already worries privacy advocates over the large amounts of user data under its control.
Or as the Atlantic Wire’s Adam Clark Estes opined: “Whether you read your News Feed or not, Facebook can ruin your Thursday night of Internet surfing any time it wants.”