21 October 2018
Facebook's half-hour outage comes within days of cyberattacks on Apple Daily and an online voting platform. Photo: Bloomberg
Facebook's half-hour outage comes within days of cyberattacks on Apple Daily and an online voting platform. Photo: Bloomberg

Crash II: When Facebook went dark in the city that never sleeps

“Let me tell you the difference between Facebook and everybody else: WE DON’T CRASH EVER!”

So screams the site’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, in “The Social Network”, the semi-fictionalized account of the company’s creation.

But Zuckerberg’s baby was left with egg on its Facebook at around 4pm Thursday when the network went offline for a second time in Hong Kong in two months. The last time the city’s 4 million-plus active users had to go without their online updates and cat photos was on April 28.

For the duration of the 30-minute outage in Hong Kong and other parts of the world Thursday, Facebook users were greeted with the pop-up message “sorry, something went wrong”. The message was a serious disturbance in the online force in Hong Kong, otherwise known as a city that never sleeps. It was even more upsetting than an MTR delay.

Perhaps Facebook users in other countries would dismiss it as just another crash but the political atmosphere here puts Hongkongers in another frame of mind. The crash was the third cyberattack this month following distributed denial-of-service attacks on Apple Daily’s website and the online voting platform for the June 22 “civil referendum” on political reform.

There is much speculation that these attacks are related to the Occupy Central movement, but there is no hard evidence that these hackers are from the mainland, where Facebook and Apple Daily are banned and residents are yet to share the joy of “universal suffrage”.

Coming just two weeks after the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, many were quick to believe the outage was the work of mainland hackers backed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). It can all seem like a sign that “the PLA is coming soon”.

That’s why a Facebook crash stresses out Hongkongers more than people in any other places.

Still, it wasn’t Facebook’s longest outage — the site was down for the count for two and a half hours in September 2010 in what was described in a rather vague and mysterious manner as “an unfortunate handling of an error condition”.

Yesterday’s shutdown also affected Facebook users in Israel, India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, the United Arab Emirates, Switzerland, Germany and Norway, and even in its headquarters in Menlo Park in California.

Facebook shares were down nearly 2 per cent last night in the United States but perhaps there is a silver lining in all this for the economy. Some suggest productivity might have actually risen yesterday as users were forced to go without friends’ selfies and focus on work. If so, the effect will have been even more pronounced in Hong Kong, which prides itself on its internet speed.

It is hard to estimate how many hours of work on average are spent on Facebook (and its new family member WhatsApp), but there can’t be too many Hong Kong users aren’t always online for chat, a game or an item of news. And Facebook is always the center of action rather than Twitter or Weibo.

Now that the problem is fixed, though, there’s time to wonder who will be next. I don’t have a crystal ball but if I had to guess it would be a top website without mainland backing. And there’s only one that hasn’t been mentioned (without the exception of the pro-Beijing Yahoo!) and that is, a local forum with 3 million users.

Can they hack us all?

Related story:

Five Chinese military officials on FBI’s most wanted list

– Contact us at [email protected]


EJ Insight writer

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe