More than a few people noticed when, at midnight Pacific time Monday, Amazon Web Services suspended its hosting for the social network Parler.  Just days before, Google and Apple removed the Parler app from the Android and iOS app stores. While it might find another host, Parler, the short-messaging social network used heavily by the groups that stormed the Capitol, is dark at a time when public concern over concentration in the digital economy has reached a fever pitch. The actions of the three companies are different from Twitter’s and Facebook’s decisions to suspend President Trump’s accounts. They affect an entire service, not a person. It’s understandable but wrong to contend that the loss of Parler as a platform is harmful to free speech, competition, or safety. In fact, these companies were right to refuse service to Parler both as a matter of law and policy.
Let’s start with speech. The First Amendment is a limit on government actors, not the private sector, and in particular, does not support the notion that a private business must allow speech — on the contrary, it protects the right of Google, Apple, and Amazon Web Services to remove Parler from their platforms. The default, under American law, is that private companies can refuse to offer service absent specific legal obligations such as civil rights laws, which don’t apply here. In fact, there’s a reasonable legal argument that continuing to allow Parler to use Amazon Web Services and app stores exposes the companies to greater liability in the future than taking it down — contrary to widespread belief, Section 230 is not a perfect shield for immunity (including, for example, exceptions for federal criminal law), and critics of tech on both sides are calling for it to be modified or repealed entirely. Failure to act would have emboldened critics on the Left in particular, who are about to control Congress and the White House.
This doesn’t answer the policy question: Did it hurt, or help, the internet ecosystem for Parler to be booted? Google, Apple, and Amazon may have killed a new social network at a time when the tech sector is very concentrated. And if they were intentionally acting to kill a competitor, critics of the companies would have a compelling point.
But their decision has nothing to do with their own profits. The companies that shut out Parler aren’t social network operators (with the possible exception of Google’s YouTube, but it is different in many respects). Indeed, they’ll lose revenue as a result, and they won’t fill the niche Parler leaves. They acted because Parler was in a position to crack down on insurrectionists who had just stormed the Capitol and didn’t. Amazon, for example, allegedly sent Parler 98 specific examples of speech that encouraged violence . And Parler did nothing. Had Parler been more responsive and responsible in light of these concerns, the service would likely still be available.
Nonetheless, some will claim that Parler was the only platform where they felt safe to express their views because the liberal goliaths of Facebook and Twitter were biased against them. It’s true that we are all better off with an internet that reflects a diversity of platform choices and content. But no individual company has a right to be preserved as a matter of openness or internet freedom.
Shutting down Parler will not stop all violence and hatred on the internet. The Proud Boys will always organize somewhere. Nonetheless, it’s still a good outcome. Parler may be able to find new hosts, but if so, it will likely be as a more niche service without the same level of access to top-tier infrastructures such as Amazon Web Services or powerful distribution platforms like the app stores of Android and iOS. Whether on a future Parler or another service, online activity from groups like the Proud Boys will shift away from mainstream services to smaller platforms likely on the “dark web” or through encrypted communication services. This will make recruitment harder for these groups and limits their scale of harm, as happened when ISIS accounts were targeted by social media companies in 2015 . And, contrary to some claims, it’s still possible to catch wrongdoers on the dark web. Law enforcement can operate undercover and track activity with the same (or more) freedom using such services as mainstream ones.
Here’s the bottom line: Parler’s users played a key role in a major terrorist attack, and voluntary action by the private sector to contain future harm is better than government action. When governments censor, it becomes immensely difficult to draw the line between legitimate concerns and the “security” rationale used to repress “rumors” and statements that create “unrest” or even “disloyalty.” And that’s a recipe for authoritarianism. The American legal system and the free market give Google, Apple, and Amazon the right to act as they did. And they did the right thing because every other possible outcome in this messy situation would be worse.
Image credit: Ascannio
- “suspended its hosting for the social network Parler.”: https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/01/09/amazon-parler-suspension/
- “98 specific examples of speech that encouraged violence”: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/09/technology/apple-google-parler.html
- “when ISIS accounts were targeted by social media companies in 2015”: https://twitter.com/AmarAmarasingam/status/1348147867739975681