Facebook Outage Spurs Controversy: Are Its Free Users Considered Customers?

Site crashed for a record-setting 22 hours

Kindra Cooper

Facebook down

Facebook’s record-setting, 22-hour outage starting Wednesday morning ignited a debate in the Twitterverse (under the trending hashtag #Facebookdown) as to whether Facebook’s free, ad-supported users are actual “customers” and whether the social networking site “owes them anything” - like an explanation.  

Starting around 9am PT Wednesday morning, users encountered interrupted access to Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp, where users were either barred altogether from logging in; or, once signed in, discovered certain features wouldn’t load. The crash affected the US, Europe, South America, Australia and Asia, according to a map from tracking site Down Detector.

Netizens complained about the uncharacteristically long outage (Facebook normally staggers server maintenance to minimize disruptions) as well as the social media giant’s lack of transparency around what caused the server crash, given that the public is still reeling from the Cambridge Analytica scandal where Russian propagandists spread pro-Trump content during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Even then, Facebook executives tried to downplay the breach by debating the semantics of whether or not “breach” was an accurate descriptor, so it’s likely that the Twitterverse was expecting Facebook to be more forthcoming this time to compensate for its past indiscretions.

But at the time of publishing, Facebook has not disclosed what really happened last night, other than to reassure users that it was not, in fact, caused by a cyberattack known as a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS), where hackers try to crash a site by flooding it with too much traffic. Notice that this still doesn’t rule out the possibility of a data breach.

Are free users customers?

Back to the “are free users considered customers?” debate. Twitterers don’t seem to think so; most reiterated that Facebook is a free service and owes its users nothing, chiding the complainers and advising them to “go read a book” or “talk to a real person” until the site rebooted.

A comment from one Twitter user underscores the extent of our social media dependency, highlighting the fact that Facebook and Instagram loyalists won’t relinquish their free privileges easily.

Engagement on Facebook’s mobile platform actually rose 7 percent immediately after the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Free users might not be customers per the traditional notion - in fact, it’s often said that given the reams of data Facebook collects on us, we are the product, not the customer. But that doesn’t rule out ethics. Facebook has a track record of announcing changes to privacy settings retroactively, couching the T&C in confusing legalese or offering impossibly short opt-out windows.

Case in point, when Facebook debuted facial recognition technology that automatically identifies faces for simplified photo tagging, the site notified users three months later that they might want to check their settings. Two years after acquiring Whatsapp, Facebook changed the app’s terms of service to reap phone numbers and various analytics for users with accounts on both services.  

Social media addiction weakens consumer advocacy

Social media addiction vastly reduces our bargaining power as consumers, especially because a free product has no price elasticity. If the company is able to maintain a sufficient user base regardless of its conduct, it has little incentive to care how you feel about its use of facial recognition technology, advertisements for items you’ve already bought trailing you for the next four months, and the “echo chamber” effect of the algorithms that control your News Feed.  

However, there’s a crucial business case as to why Facebook should care about the user experience: its ability to sell ads hinges on maintaining a sufficiently large and engaged user base. That user base has to feel confident about using apps on Facebook and clicking on ads without having their data fall into the wrong hands.

Also, the rising tide of self-censorship due to waning trust is taking hold, turning the site from a place where people share details of their personal lives into a messy aggregator for 9Gag posts.

Companies like Spotify, Pandora and Thumbtack profit from having a larger user base by allowing customers to stay on for free in addition to their paid subscribers, thereby making them more attractive to advertisers.

But Facebook is a different story. Their only paid users are the businesses that advertise on the site, thereby creating an “us” versus “them” striation of consumers versus corporations, not unlike in our offline lives.

What about when people use these free services to make a livelihood?

"Free" users are not just missing out on the ability to post memes or creep on their exes; they may be using Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp to promote their business, market their products, provide customer service or communicate with their clients. All of these activities can have significant financial ramifications.

While a case can be made that these people exercised poor risk management by building businesses on a "free" platform that makes no assurance of availability, they made the choice nonetheless. They gave "stakes" to social media, and in turn have reason to care when Facebook goes down.