Google Down: The Risks of Centralization

Google was only down for an hour, but Monday's outage was a reminder of how much the modern online existence depends on the centralized search engine colossus.

From Gmail and Google Calendar to YouTube to Google's two-factor authentication, the outage has temporarily brought online work to a standstill for many, including publications that would otherwise have reported the outage.

Additionally, it highlighted the hidden cost of the easy-to-use systems pervading the web, and how distressing or debilitating they can be when the head of the multi-tentacle beast that Google is does nod for just an hour itself.

“If an internet giant like Google can suffer an attack as large as this, denying millions of users access to basic internet services, it just goes to show that the internet infrastructure beneath the shiny web interfaces we see is indeed in a delicate and vulnerable state balance, ”said Jaro Šatkevič, Product Manager at Mysterium Network, an open source Web 3.0 project that focuses on the decentralization of the Internet.

Google down and out

According to a tweet from Google, the company suffered an "authentication system failure" that essentially rendered a multitude of servers inoperable for about 45 minutes because the system couldn't confirm who the users they said were .

It seemed to affect Europe to a large extent and went way beyond what people normally associate with being unable to get into their emails. For example, native apps like Google Maps stopped working on Android smartphones, and devices connected to the Internet through Google Home also appeared to have failed.

Tal Be’ery, co-founder and security researcher at ZenGo, the cryptocurrency wallet company, said that, in theory, a decentralized solution that allowed users to authenticate their credentials on Google using other services might have solved this problem. Such solutions exist; However, they are "probably not aligned with Google's business model and therefore not implemented," he continued.

Continue reading: How a hacker launched a decentralized network to pursue internet censorship

The blackout shows how much control and how far-reaching the impact of a single point of failure can be in a centralized system. Services and features that are vital to daily life were suddenly gone and users had no idea and much less control over when they might be back.

“The Google infrastructure is distributed with servers on all continents. However, these are interdependent and are controlled centrally, ”said Šatkevič. “They are updated centrally. They talk to each other – not only with the same protocol, but via shared software that is operated (centrally) by the same employees. "

Limits to Centralization

While the Google outage appears to be due to internal technical issues, the news follows one of the more complex cyber attacks the US government has seen in years, with nation-state hackers allegedly infiltrating the US finance and commerce departments on a standard remote -Update to SolarWinds that injected malicious code into a wide variety of systems.

SolarWinds, which develops network management software, has hundreds of customers including Fortune 500 companies and other government agencies. These include the Secret Service, the US Department of Defense, the Federal Reserve, Lockheed Martin, and the National Security Agency.

The update enabled the hackers to access internal e-mails at various agencies via Microsoft Office 365. It is unclear what else they could do or have access to.

On rare occasions, US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security has issued Emergency Policy 21-01, which "requires all civil federal agencies to review their networks for indicators of compromise and to immediately disconnect or turn off SolarWinds Orion products."

These individual entry points, the automatic updates controlled by a central actor, and the multitude of malfunctions they can enable are part of Web 2.0, which relies largely on central actors to maintain systems and access them to control and to ensure a smooth process. But that has stalled power in the hands of some massive, centralized companies like Google, ISPs, and others.

Turn the power back on

While there have been some early setbacks, including antitrust litigation against Google and Facebook in the United States, extensive lobbying efforts have been made on behalf of these giants to maintain their power in countries like the European Union.

"My personal opinion is that these companies are just old-fashioned monopolies," said British-Canadian tech blogger and science fiction writer Cory Doctorow when I spoke to him earlier this year. “Their growth is not based on the magical properties of data or network effects or whatever. It's just because they all of their competitors bought what used to be illegal and is now legal. "

Continue reading: Cory Doctorow: The Monopoly Web is already here

The decentralized architecture prevents this form of centralized control by design and ensures that no one can make a call, decision, or update (or bug) that could affect millions or even billions of people. CoinDesk has reported on the ramifications playing out in public discourse, such as the debate over moderating content on social media, which some consider corporate censorship.

In the case of Google, however, such centralized constructions of data and power show the long shadow these companies cast on seemingly mundane and increasingly critical parts of our lives.

Be & # 39; ery said at ZenGo that they are not "religious" about decentralization. Rather, he believes that a hybrid model that intelligently combines the robustness and security of decentralization and the simplicity often associated with centralized services is in many cases the best solution for customers.

Next, a debate will continue to see if this continues to be the case.

"Explaining the benefits of decentralization to end users is usually more difficult because those benefits of greater stability and robustness are not felt on a daily basis," said Be & # 39; ery. "Only in times of errors, such as those experienced by Google users today, are the advantages of decentralization highlighted."

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