Critical infrastructure on the Internet
Last Tuesday a failure of the American company Fastly caused the blackout of thousands of websites around the world. The pages of big tech like Twitch or Reddit, newspapers like The New York Times or EL PAÍS, or bodies like the British Government suddenly became inaccessible. Others, such as Amazon or Twitter, suffered problems loading their content. At a time when the pandemic has accelerated digitization and teleworking has taken dependence on networks to the extreme, the fear of a kind of apocalypse on the internet spread among millions of users.
The distress barely lasted an hour. Fastly, a content distribution network (CDN) company, that is, in charge of reducing the distance between the server and the user to facilitate the loading of the pages, relatively quickly fixed the incident. A vice president of the company explained the cause of the failure. According to his account, by changing his configuration, a customer had activated a hidden problem in a computer program deployed in May by the company.
The incident has been a financial loss for many Fastly customers, who are already preparing claims. But, above all, it leaves disturbing questions in the air. The main one: how is it possible that a problem in a relatively small company – with about a thousand employees – could cause such a disruption?
The answer is that a vital structure like the internet, despite being founded on the idea of decentralization, is concentrated, at various levels, in very few hands. In the CDN sector, a handful of companies share the cake. The main ones are also based in the United States.
Wall Street celebrated the incident by boosting Fastly shares. Not so much because of how quickly the error was corrected, but because it revealed the enormous importance of the company. The public authorities should, in the same way, take note. It is necessary to understand and assume with all the consequences that there are infrastructures not as visible as ports or highways that are crucial for the economic and democratic life of a country. And combine the promotion of free competition between companies with a certain planning or public supervision, as is the case with other critical services.
Europe is preparing to begin its reconstruction after the pandemic with an unprecedented mobilization of funds. A good part of them will go to an ambitious digitization plan. This gigantic investment should help to consolidate a business ecosystem that encourages the creation of companies dedicated to such crucial services and thus avoids excessive dependence on suppliers from outside the EU.