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For millions, the WhatsApp blackout could have been a matter of life and death | Humza jilani


Regulators in the U.S, United Kingdom and the I They are preparing to investigate Facebook on anti-competitive practices, their impact on children’s mental health, and their destabilizing impact on democracies.

As we begin these investigations, we should think of the global blackout on October 4 as a warning of the dangers of bundling the lives and livelihoods of millions of vulnerable people into one giant.

In 2019, amid heated debates in the West about the proliferation of misinformation and mental health issues stemming from social media, I witnessed a more hopeful side to Facebook’s promise to connect the world. I spent two months in Matamoros, Mexico, organizing Project Lifeline’s remote legal assistance and telemedicine project for Central American asylum seekers stranded in a border camp sprawled by migrant protection protocols.

There, WhatsApp became a portal for people trapped in the countryside to have access to life-saving medical care and legal assistance. Long lines of people waiting to charge their phones were pouring out of every restaurant and convenience store, testament to the indispensable role of social media in a refugee camp. For hundreds of millions of people outside of Matamoros, WhatsApp is much more than a messaging platform: it is their main avenue for generating income and seeking government and emergency services where there is at least a limited free Internet connection and where telephone services mobile are not yet available. reaches or remains prohibitively expensive.

But when Facebook’s servers crashed on October 4, it became clear that those bright spots hid serious dangers. The cacophony of ringtones that generally resonates throughout the sprawling urban camp in Matamoros fell silent as hundreds of migrants from Central America and the Caribbean, and the humanitarian workers helping them, rushed to contact lawyers from immigration and medical services located on the other side of the US – Border with Mexico without being able to use WhatsApp. “We couldn’t do our job to communicate with asylum seekers or professionals on the ground,” said Charlene D’Cruz, an immigration attorney who leads efforts to provide free legal assistance to asylum seekers. “We have a woman who has cancer and we had to wait all day to see when we could talk to her and receive her medical documents.”

More than 13,000 kilometers away in Sindh, Pakistan, WhatsApp is a critical business tool, especially for poverty-stricken rural villages that depend on very low margins on livestock sales. Deep in the difficult-to-traverse Thar Desert, connectivity is a precious rarity. Every day, one or two villagers travel for more than an hour to special Wi-Fi hotspots, armed with a single phone in the village and responsible for the community’s business and communication needs. There, they contact urban livestock buyers via WhatsApp and get the day’s income from the entire village. “Those trips decide what the village will earn and eat that day,” said Fariel Salahuddin, an entrepreneur in Karachi who founded Goats for Water, a startup in Pakistan that uses WhatsApp to make it easier for small farmers to trade in situations of drought and without network connection. -Affected villages in Pakistan. “If they come in and the servers are down, even for a few hours, it would be an incredible setback for the community.”

“Fortunately for us, the outage started at 9 pm and lasted until the early hours of the morning,” Salahuddin said. “If this had happened during the day, it would have significantly delayed work and would have been a massive crisis for many small farmer communities across Pakistan and the region.”

With so many lives dependent on a functional messaging service, the Facebook outage reveals the need for a different path to follow. This challenge demonstrates the need for government and socially vital parts of the economy to encourage companies to spread their operations across multiple platforms to cushion the economic impact of another disruption. In light of the disruption and existing concerns about Facebook’s privacy ethics, momentum is building to encourage WhatsApp users to switch to Signal or Telegram. But the widespread penetration of WhatsApp has created significant cultural rigidity and inertia, preventing mass migrations to competition. Phone memory is scarce in many rural and off-grid communities, and removing WhatsApp for another app often also means abandoning connections with friends and family who might be less inclined to switch platforms.

Facebook’s relentless quest for competitive control has brought us to this point. According to reportsFacebook’s $ 19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp in 2014 was the culmination of months of obsessive data collection and tracking. Facebook executives feared that WhatsApp posed a serious competitive threat to Facebook, as it was largely outpacing Facebook’s own Messenger.

While it is up to ongoing investigations to decide whether Facebook can truly be classified as a monopoly, the social media giant is playing a dangerous game in its continued attempts to cement its overwhelming dominance in the mobile messaging space. Whether by accident or the actions of a malevolent actor, a longer hiatus is inevitable down the road. And when it arrives, millions of lives will be reduced along with those servers.

  • Humza Jilani led Project Lifeline’s medico-legal asylum project in Matamoros, Mexico, in 2019. His report has previously appeared in Foreign Policy. A Marshall scholar, he is an MPhil student in international relations at Oxford.


www.theguardian.com

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