the WhatsApp outage could have been a matter of life and death

Regulators in the United States, Britain and the European Union are preparing to investigate Facebook for its anti-competitive practices, their impact on children’s mental health, and their destabilizing effects on democracies.

As this investigation begins, we must view the global disruption of October 4 as a warning of the dangers posed by the accumulation of the lifelines and livelihoods of millions of vulnerable people in one vast location.

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In 2019, amid heated debate in the West about the spread of misinformation and mental health issues from social media, I witnessed a more promising side of Facebook’s promise to connect the world. I spent two months in Matamoros, Mexico organizing a Lifeline telemedicine and legal aid project for Central American asylum seekers stranded in border camps scattered under protocols to protect migrants.

There WhatsApp became a portal for people trapped in the camps to gain access to life-saving medical care and legal assistance. Long lines of people waiting to charge their phones are sneaking out of every restaurant and supermarket, a testament to the irreplaceable role of social media in a refugee camp. For hundreds of millions of people outside Matamoros, WhatsApp is more than just a messaging platform: it is the primary way to generate income and seek government and emergency services, where at least there is a limited free internet connection and where mobile service is not yet available. available arrive or stay too expensive.

But when Facebook’s servers crashed on October 4, it became clear that there was a serious trap behind this flash of light. The cacophony of songs that normally reverberate in the sprawling Matamoros city camp has died down as hundreds of migrants and Central American and Caribbean aid workers rushed to contact immigration lawyers and medical services across the country using WhatsApp. “We can’t do our job to communicate with asylum seekers or local professionals,” said Charlene D’Croes, an immigration attorney who is leading efforts to provide free legal aid to asylum seekers. “We have a woman with cancer and we have to wait all day to see when we can talk to her and get her medical records.

More than 8,000 miles away in Sindh, Pakistan, WhatsApp is an important trading tool, especially for poor villages that depend on very low margins when selling livestock. Deep in the inaccessible Thar Desert, connectivity is an expensive rarity. Every day, one or two villagers travel to a dedicated WiFi hotspot for more than an hour, armed with the only telephone in the village and responsible for the communications and business needs of the community.

There they connect with urban cattle buyers via WhatsApp and get the entire village income for the day. “This trip determines what the village wins and eats for the day,” said Fariel Salahuddin, a Karachi entrepreneur who founded Goats for Water, a startup in Pakistan that allows smallholders to trade offline using WhatsApp, devastated and stranded villages. in Pakistan. “If they get there and the servers aren’t working for even a few hours, that’s going to be a huge hurdle for the community.”

“Fortunately for us, the break starts at 9 pm and lasts until the early hours of the morning,” said Salahuddin. “If this happened during the day, it would make work much more difficult and create a major crisis for many small farming communities in Pakistan and the region.”

With so many lives dependent on a functioning messaging service, Facebook’s disruption indicates the need for recourse. The current challenges show how important it is for governments and socially important parts of the economy to encourage companies to spread across multiple platforms to mitigate the economic shock of another failure. In light of the annoyances and concerns that exist about Facebook’s privacy ethic, momentum is building to encourage WhatsApp users to switch to Signal or Telegram.

However, the widespread use of WhatsApp has created significant cultural rigidity and dynamism, preventing mass migration to competitors. Phones run out of memory in many rural and offline communities, and deleting WhatsApp for other apps often means losing connection with extended friends and family who might be less likely to switch platforms.

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