So much of our life is spent online, yet we often don’t think about all the different steps our computers have to go through just to visit a webpage. Computers and servers and routers go through a complex and delicate interaction every time you click a link and it’s worth remembering that a tiny little mistake could break the whole thing.
For instance, just last week some Google employee made a small mistake that accidentally shut down internet access for much of Japan. While the problem was corrected within a few minutes, the effects of the mistake lasted for hours, with many people and businesses getting slow internet speeds or none at all.
The problem started when Google updated an internet routing table, which is essentially a list of IP addresses with instructions on how to get to them. Google was trying to tell the world which web addresses it owned, but accidentally included several addresses that belonged to some Japanese telecoms.
When internet service providers like Verizon tried to send people to those addresses, they used the incorrect info from Google’s router table. As a result, when people tried to visit several Japanese websites, they were instead redirected somewhere else, usually nowhere.
Google says it spotted and corrected the mistake in about 8 minutes, but by then damage was already done. Many Japanese banks and other corporations couldn’t use their web services, customers for the East Japan Railway Company couldn’t book tickets, and millions of customers of NTT Communications, Japan’s largest telecom, had no service.
While everything was back to normal by the end of the day, it’s a stark reminder of how fragile the internet architecture can be. A tiny mistake from one company nearly shut down an entire country, and a true crisis was only averted because someone recognized and fixed the mistake quickly. Be thankful that nobody’s making any bigger mistakes.