Facebook went down for a half an hour worldwide on June 19. Not a big deal, right? Wrong, at least in Hong Kong. The incident hit a nerve in the city, where some pro-democratic reform websites have recently suffered massive DDoS attacks suspected to be the work of mainland China.
Since June 14 the voting platform for an unofficial referendum on electoral reform has suffered outages, thanks to the attacks involving ten of thousands of computer networks throughout the globe, according to CloudFlare CEO Matthew Prince via local newspaper Ming Pao's report. He is involved in helping the Public Opinion Programme at the University of Hong Kong to defend against the attack.
Hong Kongers believe that Beijing is behind it because the referendum advocates the people's right to nominate candidates for the city's chief executive. China has promised a direct vote in the next chief executive election, but says Hong Kong's constitution — the Basic Law — requires a committee to nominate the candidates, something Hong Kongers fear the mainland could essentially control.
Despite the attack, 700,000 people have voted in the referendum so far.
A few days later on June 18, another round of DDoS attacks paralyzed Apple Daily's websites for more than 10 hours. The media corporate is one of the few mainstream media outlets critical of the Beijing government. During the 10 hours when Apple Daily was offline, the newspaper posted their news updates on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.
The following day, Facebook's temporary outage made many people anxious. Yuen Chan, an experienced journalist and journalism lecturer in Hong Kong, captured the sentiment in her blog:
But in the seconds that followed #Facebookdown, something strange, though predictable happened in Hong Kong. First of all, people thought the short must be directed at Hong Kong. They muttered about dark forces, hacking, the hand of the state.
When it could no longer be ignored that the outage was global, the questions turned to “what are we going to do now?” and even “are there going to be riots?”
She explains further why Hong Kongers feel so desperate when Facebook is down:
But in Hong Kong, there was something else at work. People weren’t just upset that they couldn’t see what their friends ate for lunch. They were concerned about the loss of an important platform for the exchange and dissemination of information and a tool for social mobilization.
For some reason, Twitter has never really taken off in Hong Kong, and Facebook is the social media platform of choice for everyone from K-pop chasing teens, to their mums and dads; from radical activists to their opposite numbers on the pro-government side.
That means Facebook is where people share news, views and gossip on politics and social movements in a city where social and political tensions have rarely been higher.
A post from blogger “Dead Sister Still Alive” (姐死姐還在) about “The end of the world without Facebook” echoed Yuen Chan's concern about censorship and freedom of expression:
Facebook 今日死左個一刻，我真係相當恐慌 [...]「冇Facebook 點算呀，世界末日架啦」。如果我唔係係office，我已經咆哮左出來啦。[...] –> 個手機whatsapp不停震，此時此刻，原來朋友仔都嚇到幾乎瀨屎，要double confirm 係咪只係自己瀨野上唔到。對於打工仔來講，冇左個Facebook 同送我上太空執行任務，同地面斷左聯絡一樣咁大獲。[...]
這邊廂，呀姐只係擔心個Facebook game 點解消失天與地 ；另一邊廂，香港很多人都恐慌網絡監控係唔係打到來？個世界就係咁，有人長期唔關心社會問題，到底佢係唔係要歷盡七七四十九個苦難，先會醒覺，反思同關心下「係咪個社會發生緊咩事」。[...] 係唔係網絡監控？Who knows? 但今次預演左一次「沒有Facebook 會如何」，原來真係好恐怖，我真係會好珍惜仲有機會發聲的日子，如果等到網絡certified 的時候，一切都真係太遲啦。
The moment when Facebook was down, I was terrified [...] “What if there is no more Facebook? The World Ends”. Were I not in the office, I would have screamed. […]–> WhatsApp on my mobile kept buzzing, my friends were all horrified and they wanted to double check that the situation was happening to other people too. For ordinary working people, being without Facebook as like cutting a space mission off from Earth. [...]
While my sister is concerned about why her Facebook game has vanished, many Hong Kongers are anxious about online surveillance and censorship. People have to suffer before they develop an awareness about social issues and pay attention to what happens in this society. […] Whether or not it is Internet surveillance at work, who knows? But it is a rehearsal of “what if we don't have Facebook anymore?” The situation is horrifying. I have to treasure the moment when we can still speak out. When the Internet is certified dead, everything will be too late.
Immediately following the attack, speculation about China's possible involvement took off. According to an expert from Taiwan, the Facebook downtime corresponded to a sudden barrage of traffic from China to the United States. Another Internet security expert said Facebook was under a large-scale DDoS attack, in which many compromised systems assail a single target.
Facebook later blamed the outage on a software update issue. With tensions between Hong Kong and China still high, however, that may not be much comfort.