What happens if Google goes down? Permanently.
Joe Tidy – the BBC’s Cyber-security Correspondent on our heavy reliance on Google and its services.
My friend Olivia is a busy lady. She has two rambunctious (and lovely!) kids and a demanding part time job that she squeezes in around childcare.
So the other day when she came over to pick up her son from a playdate at our house and was visibly stressed I asked her what’s gone wrong.
“Google,” she replied.
It turns out that the multinational Google outage which lasted for 45 minutes just so happened to coincide with her window of important work. “I got nothing done and will probably miss a deadline now,” she said.
At around the same time I got a WhatsApp message from a mate who works for an online training firm. “Google is out and the whole company has shutdown, lol,” he said.
Big companies have outages from time to time and websites fall over for usually short spells but this was different. I first noticed YouTube was down – a first as far as I’m aware – then Gmail, then Google Sheets, then Google Stadia. I stopped counting as it was clear that the entire product and platform line of this tech giant was out.
That’s literally billions of people unable to send emails, watch videos, collaborate on documents or play games. This isn’t even taking in account the incredible amount of peripheral services and products also potentially affected that rely on Google being a trusted online service.
This brilliant video shows just how ubiquitous the tech giant is!
My colleagues quickly wrote it up for BBC Tech online and we knew it would be a big story but it was insane. At one stage there were 33,000 people simultaneously reading the article. I’ve never seen those numbers on a tech story before.
It taught me how important Google is to so many people around the world – and how important our brand of journalism is too!
In the end it wasn’t an earth-shattering hack or catastrophic system failure that brought Google to its knees.
As is normally always the case, it was a mundane mistake where someone forgot to press some buttons:
We all knew that service would resume and that everything would pop back up exactly as we left it.
We also all knew that despite the incredible inconvenience we’d no doubt go back to trusting Google with our digital lives and carry on as if nothing happened.
It got me thinking though – what would happen if service did not resume?
I asked on Twitter and got some interesting responses. “We’d rediscover our love for Bing!” wrote one joker. “We’d actually start talking to our family and friends face to face,” wrote another.
Luckily I got some serious answers too which were fascinating. One guy who seems to know what he was talking about described a possible scenario.
So Google goes offline but unless something incredibly devastating happened to its physical infrastructure like multiple well-timed fires or explosions, all our emails, videos and pictures would still be retrievable inside the server fields around the world. (Let’s also discount the again highly unlikely scenario of a ‘digital bomb’ like ransomware or something).
It would then take an incredible, probably decades-long and costly operation to reupload everything to the internet.
One of my favourite crazy internet stats is that more than 500 hours of content are uploaded to YouTube every minute.
How that ‘looks’ can be seen on this mind-blowing live counter site:
So if everyone’s trusting these services with their much loved videos and other data – how would Google or a rival or even a cyber authority decide who’s data would be deemed the most important? How would the queue be formed?
As the sole curator of funny and adorable videos for my whole extended family, I would argue that the contents of my Google Drive should be high up the list. But would it be? Perhaps I could bump myself up the queue with some cold hard cash? But that doesn’t seem fair to all the other people whose lives are trapped inside a digital black box somewhere in the world.
Taking the thought experiment to its natural conclusion – I think a massive company like Google going offline forever is obviously a doomsday scenario that is highly unlikely to occur. But for 45 minutes we were all reminded just how reliant and trusting we are of just a handful of companies that effectively run the internet.
… I should probably start that big ‘backup to hard drive’ project I’ve been putting off for years.