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[Digital Simplicity] What happens to users when Google suffers massive outage?

A host of Google services including YouTube and Gmail were down for about an hour on Monday, leading to the trending hashtag “#YouTubeDOWN.” For those who rely heavily on Google’s productivity services, the outage is a sobering reminder that their digital life is essentially breakable at any moment.

At a time when a growing number of people work from home with the help of a wide array of digital devices, sudden glitches of the internet network, core business-related services and entertainment platforms could bring much more than brief frustration.

Years ago, a local TV network carried out an experiment about the psychology of those who faced a sudden outage that disrupted what they were doing at an internet cafe, better known here as a “PC bang.”

The TV crew shut down the electricity powering the internet cafe without prior notice and recorded what happened, an experiment that would supposedly expose the violence of young people addicted to games.

Of course, the experiment was flawed from the outset. Whether you’re addicted to games or not, you are very likely to express anger or frustration at such a sudden outage, particularly if your data is gone and cannot be recovered due to the disruption. What should be kept as a lesson, though, is that the more we depend on digital services, the greater impact we suffer when they shut down or fail us.

At the heart of the problem is that users do not have any control over such problems. Big Tech firms including Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft do not give any compensation to users who have lost their masterful novel manuscripts, crucial school papers or make-or-break business contracts, even if the loss of data is due to the outage of their services. In other words, users remain helpless despite having done nothing wrong.

If service outages pose an external force threatening the digital life of today’s people, a rapidly expanding list of passwords is an internal force that complicates the already complex management of online services.

Several years ago I began to collect and organize all the IDs and passwords for the services I use regularly. It was simple and straightforward, at least initially. Now, I have to use keywords to find the right ID and password since there are too many services, IDs and passwords.

To simplify my digital life, I tried to unsubscribe from services that I rarely use, only to find that I have to sign up for new services related to my work. A single, secure and reliable log-in system for all digital services is a fantasy that will remain elusive into the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, many among both domestic and global digital services have been exposed to hacking attacks, leading to the inevitable leakage of personal information including IDs and passwords. Koreans jokingly say that national resident registration numbers are almost “public assets” ready to be scrutinized and abused by hackers, since local information technology services, online retailers and content providers have had user data stolen by hackers on many occasions.

As the public concerns are heightened following the massive outage of Google services, the Ministry of Science and ICT is said to have asked Google Korea to take measures to stabilize its services, citing a newly revised law related to telecommunications business.

Under the revised law that went into effect on Dec. 10, the Korean government can request Big Tech firms such as Google, Facebook, Netflix and Naver to submit related documents when their services go down.

The law is aimed at global content providers like Google to maintain the quality of service, but it remains uncertain whether Big Tech companies would change their business practice of just issuing a half-hearted apology about the service outage.

“Please rest assured that system reliability is a top priority at Google, and we are making continuous improvements to make our systems better,” Google said. Rest assured, yes, that this is not the last global outage of Google services and more people will be affected when the next one hits.

By Yang Sung-jin (insight@heraldcorp.com)

Yang Sung-jin is the multimedia editor of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.
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