Amazon, Apple, and Google Cut Off Parler, Citing Its Failure to Moderate Extremist Content

A platform now at risk of itself being de-platformed. Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

Parler, the “free speech” Twitter competitor that has become an anything-goes haven for diehard Trump supporters and right-wing extremists — and where users planned, promoted, and/or glorified Wednesday’s deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob — may not survive the Trump era.

The social-media company received a crippling blow on Saturday when Amazon suspended the company from its AWS web-hosting service, alleging that its failure to sufficiently moderate the content shared on its platform violated AWS’s terms of service. The suspension will go into effect at 12 a.m. Pacific Time on Monday, and the company’s CEO has already warned users to expect as much as a week of downtime while it looks for a new web host and rebuilds “from scratch.”

Amazon’s decision, which also happened amid activism by Amazon employees to pressure the company to drop the service, followed similar moves by Apple and Google, which have both suspended Parler’s app from their respective app stores over the past two days — effectively blocking almost anyone from being able to install the app on their smartphones or tablets.

Apple said in a statement on Saturday night that while it supports “diverse points of view being represented” on its App Store, “there is no place on our platform for threats of violence and illegal activity,” and “Parler has not taken adequate measures to address the proliferation of these threats to people’s safety.” BuzzFeed News reported on Friday that Apple had given the company 24 hours to develop an adequate content-moderation plan, citing in its warning “numerous complaints regarding objectionable content” and “accusations that the Parler app was used to plan, coordinate, and facilitate the illegal activities in Washington, D.C., on January 6.” The company then apparently failed to meet to Apple’s expectations by the deadline and was suspended on Saturday. In the 24-hour period before it was removed, Parler became the most downloaded app in Apple’s App Store as would-be users apparently rushed to install the app while they had the chance.

Google suspended the Parler app from the Google Play store on Friday, citing the continued posting of content on the platform “that seeks to incite ongoing violence in the U.S.” and informing the company that it needed to set up a moderation plan to address “this ongoing and urgent public-safety threat.”

It is not clear if or when Parler will be able to adequately address the tech giants’ concerns, or if it will even want to. The site was founded in 2018 and champions its commitment to free speech and lax moderation. It has subsequently become a safe space for many on the right, and also many on the far-right — including members of hate and extremist groups, conspiracy theorists like QAnon followers, as well as users who have been banned from other social-media platforms. Many popular conservative figures have either fled to the site or extended their social-media presences there, as well, though embrace of the service among that crowd has sometimes been more about virtue-signaling than actual adoption. Parler has millions of active users, but still offers far fewer followers and much less overall influence than other platforms.

The company’s CEO, John Matze, has remained defiant in response to the warnings and suspensions, which he has called a “coordinated attack by the tech giants to kill competition in the marketplace” because “we were too successful too fast.” In a message to Parler users on Saturday, Matze called Amazon’s suspension “an attempt to remove free speech off the internet” and insisted that “we have many [providers] competing for our business.” He also alleged that Amazon, Apple, and Google had timed their suspensions together “knowing our options would be limited and knowing this would inflict the most damage right as President Trump was banned from the tech companies.”

Every major social-media company has suspended President Trump’s accounts either permanently or temporarily in the aftermath of the attack he incited on the Capitol. Trump’s campaign and three of his family members have accounts on Parler, but none have used the platform as prolifically as they have other social networks. As of Saturday night, Trump himself still did not have an account there.

Earlier in the week, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, Matze had claimed that no violence was being organized on the site, criticized media coverage of the company, and insisted that “violence and coordinating riots, coordinating rebellions, and coordinating insurrections has no place on social media.”

“Don’t count us out,” Matze assured users on Saturday, but the company faces a difficult road. Even if it can relaunch its service with a new host, however long that takes, and all of its users stick around, being cut off from Apple and Google’s app stores would be a death knell for almost any app. And it’s far from clear that Parler can address the two companies’ concerns sufficiently without significantly altering the value proposition it has made to its users.

As the New York Times succinctly explained on Saturday, the crackdown on right-wing extremists across social media, as well as on Parler, has wider implications, should the big tech companies universally maintain their vigilance once the Capitol riot news cycles have passed:

Several upstarts have courted Mr. Trump’s supporters with promises of “unbiased” and “free speech” social networks, which have proven to be, in effect, free-for-all digital town squares where users hardly have to worry about getting banned for spreading conspiracy theories, making threats or posting hate speech. The tougher enforcement from the tech companies could preclude such apps from becoming realistic alternatives to the mainstream social networks. They now face the choice of either stepping up their policing of posts — undercutting their main feature in the process — or losing their ability to reach a wide audience.

For their part, some of the companies whose platforms were also widely used by members of the pro-Trump mob at the Capitol have already made at least some attempts at reform. Again, per the Times:

DLive, a livestreaming site that rioters storming the Capitol used to broadcast the moment, said on Friday that it had indefinitely suspended seven channels and permanently removed over 100 previous broadcasts of the mob. It added that the “lemons,” a DLive currency that can be converted into real money, sent to the suspended channels would be refunded to donors in the next few days. Other platforms that host posts by right-wing influencers, including CloutHub and MyMilitia — a forum for militia groups — adjusted their terms of service recently to ban threats of violence.

Mediate reported on Friday that Parler had eventually taken down posts written by pro-Trump lawyer Lin Wood (who migrated to the platform as a result of being banned from Twitter) in which he advocated for executing Vice-President Mike Pence and spread toxic conspiracy theories about the Capitol riot.

At the same time, law-enforcement officials might not want to see every offending message disappear, either. The Verge reports that Senator Mark Warner, the Democrat who will soon lead the Senate Intelligence Committee, has sent an informal request to the CEOs of every major telecom and social-media platform, including Parler, asking them to preserve content and metadata related to the attack on the Capitol so that it can be available to law-enforcement agencies investigating the riot. On Friday, Politico reported that Warner and several other lawmakers are vowing that Congress’s scrutiny of tech companies’ efforts to moderate their platforms was going to intensify following the attack on the Capitol.

Amazon, Apple, and Google Axe Parler, the Right-Wing Twitter