Google outage: Hong Kong’s district councilor says its high time the city’s reliance on the Internet giant is curtailed

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Last week, Google was faced with complete shutdowns of its major services lasting days. “As a frequent Google user, personally and for work, it was really frustrating and I felt helpless not being able to get anything done,” said Christine Fong, a Hong Kong district councilor. 

Europe and the east coast of America were the worst hit, during working hours. Site downtime monitor indicates the outage lasted for about 45 minutes last Monday, 8pm HKT. 

Fong expressed both interest and concern in the days-long outage, explaining the loss of emails to constituents and files stored on Google Drive. 

Online users reported aftershocks and glitches with Google services such as Gmail, YouTube, Google Docs and Google Maps, two days in a row. Other services that experienced downtime were Google Drive, Adwords, Adsense, Google Pay, Google Home and Google’s Chromecast. 

“My classmates and I were frozen out of Zoom, Gmail and Google Drive, we couldn’t do anything else but wait until Google was back on again,” said Charlotte Chung, a master’s student in sociology at The University of Hong Kong. 

In Google’s official statement, the root cause stemmed from an overcapacity of the users quota, further weighing down on its authentication tools. Although third-party services using Google’s authentication platform were fully-functioning for users logged in, it failed when users tried to sign out. 

Cloud providers have been met with an increasing demand during the Covid-19 pandemic which put Google, not once, but three times this year to extraordinary tests. In April, Google services, especially Gmail, Snapchat and the smart home company, Nest experienced disruptions for a few hours

The same can be said of the pressure mounted on Microsoft Azure’s outage mirrored Google’s recent downtime – authentication systems were shut down in September, as well as the popular 2020 work-from-home video conferencing platform, Zoom which left businesses, schools and government institutions helpless during the power failure

Hurting gig economy workers

The Google G Suite has over 2 billion users worldwide and its service shutdown has affected the economy, Fong said, referring to the small-medium enterprises (SMEs) in startup hubs like Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.

“Think about how hard it is for SMEs and other small businesses to bid to appear on Google’s search first page when there are large corporations that buy their way to the top,” Fong said, adding that business-owners and consumers lamented the total blackout that set them back in time and resulted in a profit loss. Clinging onto her Sai Kung District Council seat for over 10 years, Fong’s long-running protest against the controversial Tseung Kwan O landfill is a testament to her close relations with her constituency. 

“People who work for e-commerce platforms like GoGoVan, FoodPanda and Deliveroo rely on Google Maps and they were dumbfounded about the system error when order location tracking no longer worked,” Fong said, adding that most delivery riders lack legal safety nets with no negotiating power when it comes to labor rights. 

“After the system downtime, employers didn’t care to inform the workers about the crash, so workers could not understand why there were no orders being placed,” Fong explained, saying that this could have been avoided had the e-commerce apps had built-in services rather than depend on third-party services. 

Even though Google is free, convenient and a universal lexicon for searching the Internet for information and services, Fong said that mission-critical applications such as Google Pay and Google Home are at the behest of Google’s hybrid cloud control. Any more outages and the negative consequences could be financially draining for the economy. 

But whether that means users should switch to a Chinese-owned tech platform as an alternative to Google is not a safe option either for the centrist politician.

FoodPanda and GoGoVan did not respond to requests for comment. 

US-China tech turf war

Fong pointed out that in 2013, Google scrapped its plans to set up a massive data center in her New Territories district of Tseung Kwan O, opting to establish the data center in Singapore instead. 

Disenchanted, Fong’s brief advocacy to bring Google to Hong Kong given the rise of smartphone users at the time at least led to continued usage in the city. However, she stressed on Google’s fractured relationship with China in view of the 2010 allegations of Chinese government hackers attacking journalists, activists and U.S. military personnel accounts. 

“It’s a huge upset for me to think that a U.S. tech heavyweight refuses to build a data center that would have created more jobs, boost Hong Kong’s tech literacy and economy,” Fong said. 

Early in September, Google announced its decision to build a third data center in Taiwan, reported to launch operations in 2022. Microsoft also announced in the following month to invest in a popular IT market by building the first Azure cloud data center in the island nation

“It’s clear that Google obeys U.S. guidelines and given the U.S.-China friction in the tech sector, it’s important for Hong Kong to shift away from monopolistic companies like Google especially as we continue to invest more time in cloud computing technology for as long as this pandemic is here to stay,” Fong said. 

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