The Parler problem shows just how much the US has outsourced free speech protections

“Even if you have no sympathy for Parler, the fact that these companies have this kind of power is unsettling.”
“Even if you have no sympathy for Parler, the fact that these companies have this kind of power is unsettling.”
Image: REUTERS/Salvador Rodriguez
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Parler—the rightwing social media platform that sought to carve out a niche for itself by refusing to moderate conspiracy theories, hate speech, and incitements to violence—is searching for a new home.

The platform got kicked offline after extremists used Parler to coordinate the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol. But it wasn’t American courts, elected officials, or law enforcement agents who gave it the boot: That responsibility fell to a trio of Big Tech companies whose infrastructure helps form the backbone of the internet.

On Jan. 9, Apple and Google removed Parler from the App Store and the Android Marketplace, respectively, actions that prevented new users from downloading the app. The next day, Amazon Web Services (AWS) dropped Parler as a client, which severed the social media platform’s connection to the internet. Parler CEO John Matze says the company is now scrambling to find another web-hosting company that will accept its business and help Parler get back online.

Collectively, these actions suggest that private web infrastructure companies in some cases have more power to regulate online speech than the US government. Consider that Apple, Amazon, and Google pulled Parler off the web within four days of the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington DC. For comparison, when US president Donald Trump threatened to ban TikTok in July, the federal government floundered for months, trying and failing to coerce these same companies into shutting off services for TikTok before quietly giving up on the ban.

While the contrast could be considered an indictment of the executive branch, to others, it’s a reflection of corporate dominance in the US, both over the choices of consumers and the actions of businesses. “Even if you don’t like Nazis and you have no sympathy for Parler, the fact that these companies have this kind of power is unsettling,” said James Grimmelmann, a professor of digital and information law at Cornell University.

Web infrastructure’s hidden power

There’s been a lot of public discussion lately around the role that platforms like Facebook and Twitter play in moderating speech—but we tend to pay less attention to what’s going on beneath the surface at the level of basic web infrastructure, where companies have built up considerable power over web content through decades of deregulation and market concentration.

Most websites depend on infrastructure built by separate web-hosting companies. These are the firms that do all the behind-the-scenes work needed to keep the internet running. They build massive warehouses packed with rows and rows of servers that store a website’s data and connect it to the internet. “Most people don’t want to be hand coding their own web servers,” Grimmelman said, “so it makes a lot of sense to delegate that to companies that specialize in it.”

A few of those web-hosting companies have gotten very big. “Part of that is capitalism at work, pouring billions of dollars into building highly scaled systems that can outcompete smaller competitors,” said Grimmelmann. The other part comes from loose regulations and weak antitrust enforcement, which have allowed tech companies to grow unchecked for decades.

The biggest large-scale web-hosting services are owned by Amazon, Microsoft, and Google, followed by a handful of runners-up like IBM and Oracle. After that, there are hundreds of smaller firms, but they might struggle to host a site like Parler with tens of millions of users. “If you’re building a large site with complicated infrastructure…there aren’t a ton of places you can go,” said Grimmelmann.

US courts have supported a company’s right to turn away customers if doing business with them would go against the business owner’s conscience—most memorably, in a Supreme Court decision that upheld a bakery’s right to refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding. “We’re seeing this in infrastructure now,” says Grimmelmann, “where companies that provide infrastructure decide, ‘No, actually, we do not want to be used to process payments that are supporting domestic terrorism.'”

The difference, of course, is that forcing a customer to buy a cake somewhere else doesn’t preclude their ability to participate in the entire digital marketplace. “We will try our best to move to a new provider right now as we have many competing for our business,” wrote Matze, the Parler CEO, shortly before his platform went offline on Jan. 10. But a moment later, he seemed to acknowledge that Parler doesn’t actually have a lot of choices: “Amazon, Google and Apple purposefully did this as a coordinated effort knowing our options would be limited.” On Jan. 11, the company sued Amazon for its suspension.

In a statement, an AWS spokesperson said the company had warned Parler repeatedly to clean up its act before it finally pulled the plug on the social network: “AWS provides technology and services to customers across the political spectrum, and we respect Parler’s right to determine for itself what content it will allow. However, it is clear that there is significant content on Parler that encourages and incites violence against others, and that Parler is unable or unwilling to promptly identify and remove this content, which is a violation of our terms of service.”

The medium and the message

Grimmelmann stressed that even if you support Amazon, Google, and Apple’s decision to take down Parler—which he does—it’s troubling that they had the unilateral authority to kick a platform off the web. “If we’re in a world where they do have that kind of power, then we want them to have things like due process and fairness and evenhanded treatment of different viewpoints,” he said. Next time, he mused, the target could be a merchant that Amazon is retaliating against over a business dispute.

If this kind of ban continues, it could create a sort of subterranean bifurcation of web infrastructure, as clients deemed unacceptable by the big players seek web services elsewhere.

Of the major web-hosting companies, the most likely fit for Parler would seem to be Oracle. CEO Larry Ellison is one of the few Silicon Valley leaders who has publicly backed Trump, and his company is desperate to expand its web services business. But it’s unclear if the revenue from a Parler deal would be enough to offset the reputational hit the company might suffer for taking in a banished platform associated with a deadly insurrection.

Parler might instead turn to VanwaTech, the web-hosting company that rescued neo-nazi rag The Daily Stormer and 8chan, the hate-speech-heavy messageboard favored by mass shooters looking to publish manifestos. Both got knocked offline when cybersecurity firm Cloudflare pulled their anti-hacking protections, citing their hateful content.

No one has yet figured out the best way to regulate speech online speech in an age of rising polarization, widespread disinformation, and growing threats of political violence. But the debate has now descended to the deepest levels of the internet, where sleeping web giants are just beginning to wake and flex their power.

This story has been updated to include a statement from Amazon Web Services.