Pas Parler?

Will the real Internet government please stand up?

Parler in Prison

This weekend, Google, Apple, and Amazon all took steps to remove the right wing conspiracy web site Parler from their services, steps that will cripple the social media site for some some period of time. In many ways, Parler had it coming to them. Amazon in particular alleged that Parler refused to take prompt action to remove abusive content that violated their terms of service.

In response, my right wing friends have gone nearly indiscriminately crazy, complaining that their 1st Amendment rights have been violated. Let’s review that amendment of the U.S. Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment I of the U.S. Constitution.

In other words, Congress cannot stop someone from speaking. But these companies are not Congress, nor an arm of the U.S. government. We could, however, say that they are a form of government, in as much as these companies, along with a small number of other ones, such as TikTok control societal discourse. What rules would govern them if they decided that was also not to their liking? Could these services exclude content that criticizes them?

Parler is a relative newcomer. Much in the same way that Fox News has lost its conservative gleam to NewsMax, Facebook and Twitter lost their gleam when they started applying editorial control to posts. They did this because they gauged societal harm against whatever short term revenue they were collecting from the likes of Donald Trump. There was seemingly no reason they had to, at least in the United States. U.S. Law says this:

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

47 USC § 230

Meddle with this rule at your peril. If we shift the burden of policing to online services, social media sites as we know them will cease to be, GMail and Yahoo! mail would be imperiled, and Amazon could no longer offer customer reviews. If there is a middle ground to be found, then scale factors must be considered. Any middle ground may well increase the risks of starting up new services. If the price of entry for a new Facebook or Twitter competitor is fancy artificial intelligence systems and patents, then we may have done ourselves no service in the long run.

The United Social Networks Nations
The United Social Networks Nations

There are other consequences to Apple and Google removing Parler from their respective phone and tablet stores: I saw one conversation in which someone was describing to her friends how to turn off automatic software updates. Software updates are the means by which developers correct vulnerabilities they have created. By disabling those updates, people leave themselves vulnerable to attack.

Today Parler is losing its voice, arguably for very deserved reasons. Tomorrow, some other site might lose its access. Will those reasons be just as good and who will decide?

8 thoughts on “Pas Parler?”

  1. I think a more problematic implication is that with the unholy unions of media companies and the physical delivery infrastructure, the concept of “common carrier” protections is now more blurred than ever.

  2. My understanding (“I read it on the Internet so it must be true”) is that Parler, by failing to police their own users for incitement to violence, violated the terms of use of the platforms they were using. As a result, those platforms chose to discontinue Parler’s service. This seems appropriate to me. They can either (and, as I understand it, are via Epik) reconstitute their service in a venue that does not have the limitations AWS has or change their service to abide by the terms of use they had contractually obligated themselves to.

    A different argument could be made related to the apps, as it may be there are some monopoly-related issues there, but then again, Parler was (and probably will be again) a website first — they apps were developed later. And again, all (I gather) Parler needed to do was moderate their content to abide by Apple/Google terms of use (or not use those platforms).

    Re: Facebook and Twitter, it may be more than a coincidence that their policies changed so close after the Georgia elections switched the control of the Senate. But then again, I may be a bit cynical.

    1. If Epik chooses to host them then they are taking the risk of being named co-conspirators if the illegal content continues to transpire and they do not remove it and/or report it to the appropriate authorities.

      This is no different if the content were not incitement to violence and insurrection against the government, but child pr0n. They’re all felonies.

    2. Dave, moderating content is something that requires some pretty fancy AI and then a team of people, in order to scale. What FB and Twitter do is not a simple thing. Let’s call that a barrier to entry. How large is it? I can’t say.

  3. The question is not about an individual company or thought it is about WHO gets to make those decisions. The public? The bandwidth provider? The CEO? Who? If the government under Trump had stepped in and turned off Twitter. How would you feel about that? That the feds suddenly decided that criticizing the president was illegal. What then would you think?

    I am reminded that the ACLU fought for the right of nazis to March in Skokie Ill. Not because the agreed with the nazis, but because the right for freedom of expression was too great. In that case it was the city government trying to stop what was a legally applied for gathering. But the point is that our rights to say and do as a freedom do not just apply to what we want to hear, and in fact is protected for that very reason so that we hear all views.

    Speech is not protected in various instances. Yelling fire in a public place falsely is illegal. There is a separation between talking about it and doing an action. I can talk about overthrowing the government, but walking into a federal building and taking action has consequences. So we are all protected from bad things by those laws.

    Preemptively stopping speech is a whole other thing. Who gets to do that is really a question and when one political, or philosophical view holds all outlets that’s tantamount to a monopoly… in those cases we are only going to see hear what those entities want us to. Is that right, correct?

    Elliot states this well. While this might be considered a “good” thing, will the next time also be considered good and correct? It’s the top of the hill. Where do we go from here? The question is not about Parler, it is about the flow of ideas and thoughts and who controls them.

  4. Eliot – fantastic insight. If Google, facebook etc. don’t like it, follow it, hate it, (the US constitution that is), where do we go from here? If I understand world governments like China or Russia view on free speech, would they let an APP like Parler exist in their countries? Only if it followed the narrative on what they want to communicate – I think Free speech has a hard time in China/Russia! I like your point. who or what will be censored next?

  5. Eliot there are gaping double standards here. At the risk of being a whataboutist, we have to recall that Trump supporters gleefully applauded Trump’s Muslim ban because supposedly the threat of terrorism was too great. The separation of church and state as quoted in the First Amendment seems to specifically proscribe such a law. Meanwhile Trump wanted to erase 230 in order that the government could regulate social media so it seems like another case of “it’s only bad if liberals do it”. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be wary of muzzling those who don’t warrant it because the “other side” is hypocritical, but I would suggest that dangerous terrorists be treated at least as harshly as conservatives treat people of a religion they don’t like.

    1. Hi Tony and thanks for the comment. Part of the point of my post was that I don’t think simply tweaking Section 230 is the answer. It is the concentration of power into a small number of hands, without any real oversight, that concerns me. I’m not even claiming they did anything wrong in this case, but consider this: the Google slogan “Don’t Be Evil” seems to have not always been followed by a corporation that is beholden primarily to stockholders (cf. various firings).

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