The Facebook outage that struck Monday morning and lasted throughout the day was ultimately a minor inconvenience for most Americans. But in countries like Brazil, it caused a destabilizing and disorienting seven hours ― not because Facebook.com was gone, but because WhatsApp, the messaging service the company also owns, suddenly went offline along with it.
Still largely an afterthought in the United States, WhatsApp has grown into one of the world’s most vital communications services. More than 2 billion people ― 1 in 4 people on the planet ― use it. Brazil and India alone are home to nearly one-quarter of them.
WhatsApp’s text messaging and internet-based video and audio chat platforms are especially popular in the Global South, where WhatsApp is a cheap way to avoid the often-exorbitant costs of SMS messaging and cellular data. Nearly half of Brazilians say WhatsApp is their most-used app, and more than 90% of the country’s internet users are WhatsAppers — as is also the case in Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Argentina, Malaysia and Colombia. Facebook and Instagram, which Facebook also owns, are the second and third most popular apps in Brazil, surveys have shown.
That ubiquity has essentially turned WhatsApp into a public utility: It’s so crucial to global communications infrastructure that when it goes down, entire countries, segments of their economies, and even some basic daily governmental activities nearly grind to a halt.
“It was basically like the entire internet was out. That was the perception” in Brazil, said David Nemer, a University of Virginia media studies professor. A native Brazilian, Nemer has studied WhatsApp’s impact on the country and written about it for HuffPost.
But unlike actual public utilities, WhatsApp is a privately owned enterprise subject to virtually none of the regulatory scrutiny that governs many such services. Across the Global South, a U.S.-based company has amassed near-monopolistic power over people’s basic ability to communicate without any real accountability to the countries or citizens who rely on it most heavily.
It did not become that goliath by accident. Facebook paid a staggering $21.8 billion for WhatsApp in 2014, a massive bet on a company that had just 500 million users at the time and had lost more than $230 million in the first six months of that year. But the gamble has paid off handsomely as WhatsApp’s user base has quadrupled and other Facebook initiatives have increased users’ reliance on its products.
Not long after purchasing WhatsApp, Facebook launched a program called Free Basics meant to lower barriers to internet access across the world. The basis of Free Basics was access to a limited number of barebones, low-data websites without the cost of typical data fees, a practice known as zero-rating. The stated premise was to help expand internet access to people in places where at-home connectivity was still prohibitively expensive.
Free Basics eventually spread to roughly 65 countries, including 30 in Africa. But it also wound up mired in controversy, especially in India, where government regulators and net neutrality advocates immediately feared that the company was simply trying to create a monopolized internet market to boost its own profits. Facebook, they worried, was trying to ingrain in peoples’ minds that it was the internet, especially in the Global South.
Later studies conducted by digital advocacy groups would conclude that this is exactly what Facebook had done and accuse the company of engaging in “digital colonialism.”
As Brazil worked toward the passage of a Digital Bill of Rights in 2014, open internet advocates argued that zero-rating was a “dangerous practice that threatens to undermine the open internet,” and asked lawmakers to ban it, as India eventually would two years later. Zero-rating was especially risky in a country where most users rely on relatively cheap mobile internet plans to connect, critics warned, because it would artificially bolster a closed web of sites that could afford to exempt themselves from cellular data plans.
The law included net neutrality provisions meant to guarantee an open internet, but almost immediately after it passed, one of Brazil’s major phone carriers began exempting Facebook and WhatsApp from its data plans, allowing users to send messages and make calls via those apps for free. Another of Brazil’s biggest mobile providers began zero-rating WhatsApp in 2018.
The argument is that this is good for consumers, but the real boon is reserved for Facebook: Partnering with domestic telecoms giants to hand out free access allowed the company to attract new users, then gather and compile data and metadata it could then monetize, in parts of the world it had not yet reached.
“This is called data colonialism,” Nemer said. “They provide access so they can extract as much data as possible, especially in middle-markets where they don’t have that access.” The metadata WhatsApp’s encrypted messaging produces, Nemer added, “is like gold for Facebook.”
“Across the Global South, a U.S.-based company has amassed near-monopolistic power over people’s basic ability to communicate without any real accountability to the countries or citizens who rely on it most heavily.”
Since then, Facebook has only made WhatsApp an even more essential part of daily life in Brazil, where regulators in May finally approved the company’s plans to allow users to make in-app financial transactions. India also allows the practice, which has deepened its role as a vital service for businesses and consumers: In Brazil and India, WhatsApp now houses the services iMessage, Venmo, and other apps provided in the U.S., but all in one place.
“Moments of breakdown of those platforms are the moments that we actually see them,” said Gabriel Pereira, a Brazilian doctoral fellow at Aarhus University in Denmark who recently co-authored a paper on the impact of WhatsApp disruptions on Brazil between 2015 and 2018. “WhatsApp is so embedded into everyday digital living that people don’t notice that it exists anymore.”
Monday’s outage offered a glimpse of what happens when it doesn’t exist. On Twitter, Brazilians lamented that their primary means of communicating with friends and family had suddenly disappeared. Others shared stories about taking the day off because work without WhatsApp is impossible: Doctors and dentists, delivery people and others rely on WhatsApp to confirm appointments and orders. It’s also used to plan important business meetings, even inside the government.
The brief outage was a relief for some who spend too much time on their phones ― the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper poked fun at the debacle with a list of “things to do while the nets are down.” And some small business owners enjoyed a reprieve from answering customers and fulfilling orders, even if it cost them money.
For others, the outage was direr. “It was terror and panic,” Daniella Goulart, who sells lunchtime meals via WhatsApp in Brasilia, told Rede Brasil Atual, a leftist publication. “I can say that 99% of my customers order food through WhatsApp, and it stopped just at the peak hour of my delivery.” Goulart said her sales were down 60% compared to normal days.
Brazilians have other messaging options, but none match the cultural and economic power of “Zap Zap,” as WhatsApp is colloquially known there. Previous outages or judicial orders that have temporarily shut the app down have caused Brazilians to seek out other platforms but have not broken WhatsApp’s hold on the Brazilian market.
The power Facebook has amassed had attracted increasing scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators across the planet even before this week’s problems. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission alleged this year that Facebook is a monopoly in violation of federal antitrust laws, effectively putting the government on the side of larger pushes to break up the company. Others have long called on the United States to regulate Facebook, and the internet more broadly, as a public utility.
WhatsApp has been subject to similar scrutiny in Brazil, where it served as a vector for mass misinformation campaigns that spread via its bulk messaging capabilities during the 2018 election won by right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro. There are a number of reasons why misinformation thrived in Brazil in 2018, but one is that zero-rating had given users cheaper access to WhatsApp than to actual news sites. More recently, changes to Facebook’s privacy rules and data collection methods led to warnings from government agencies and public interest groups that the new policies violated privacy and competition laws. (Facebook ultimately backed down amid global protests.)
Monday’s outage generated even more calls for dismantling Facebook. But some experts in the U.S. are skeptical that efforts to break up the company will actually succeed, while others aren’t sure treating it like a utility would do enough to help American consumers (especially compared to what similar regulations on our few cellular and internet service providers could accomplish). Facebook, for its part, has asked a federal judge to dismiss the FTC’s suit against it.
The case that WhatsApp operates like an entity that should be subject to at least some public accountability and regulation seems clearer-cut: It’s hard to argue that a communications app whose failure can disrupt the entire world’s ability to communicate is merely an app, rather than something with a bit more responsibility to consumers and society.
But it may not be important enough in the U.S. for regulators to seek more authority over it here, and U.S. lawmakers aren’t likely to concern themselves with the implications of an American company controlling the communications infrastructure of much of the Global South. Governments like Brazil’s, meanwhile, may lack the power (or, under Bolsonaro, the desire) to go it alone against such a behemoth.
A significant amount of Facebook’s power, Pereira said, is derived from its intentional construction of a system in which large swaths of the public find it difficult to imagine life without it. Many in Brazil, India, across Africa and the rest of the world undoubtedly cannot.
And even if Monday’s outage and Facebook’s scandal-plagued recent weeks do lead countries to decide that a communications system dominated by a single private entity from afar isn’t what they want, unwinding the system Facebook has created ― and that lawmakers and regulators across the world, and especially in the U.S. have allowed it to build ― won’t be easy or clean, not when it is so deeply intertwined with daily life.
“Facebook is playing by the market rules ― rules that were approved and designed by [lawmakers],” Nemer said. “They created a monster, and the monster now is turning back on them.”