After Amazon Cuts Off Parler For Hosting Extremism, Parler Sues Amazon

After warning it would happen, Amazon has cut ties with Parler through it’s web services. Parler responded by suing Amazon.

It took a terrorist attack to do it, but terms of use are finally being enforced against violent right wing extremism. The attack saw 5 people dead including a member of law enforcement. Ever since then, a number of large web services have finally worked up the courage to enforce the terms of service for right wing extremists.

Shopify banned Donald Trump from their services. This as Facebook permanently banned Trump. Twitter followed suit by permanently banning Trump after issuing a 12 hour ban on the president.

Of course, the purge wasn’t exclusive to the lead instigator of the insurrection on the Capitol. Other big names began experiencing a social media purge as well. Parler, a right wing social media platform that partly fueled the right wing extremism we are seeing today, has been banned from the app stores owned by Apple and Google. At the time, Amazon was also giving Parler an ultimatum: either clean up the platform of hate material and extremist content or get the boot.

Now, we are learning that Amazon has now followed through and has cut off Parler from the Amazon Web Services (AWS). From TechCrunch:

True to its word, Amazon Web Services (AWS) suspended services to Parler, the right-wing-focused social network that proved a welcoming home for pro-Trump users who called for violence at the nation’s Capitol and beyond. The service suspension went into effect overnight after a 24-hour warning from AWS, which means that if you now go to Parler’s web address you’re greeted with a message saying the requested domain can’t be reached.

Parler’s community had been surging after the permanent suspension of Trump’s official accounts from Twitter and Facebook last week, which also saw removed from those platforms a number of accounts tweeting similar invectives and encouragement of violence aligned with Trump’s sentiments. Apple and Google then removed Parler from their respective app stores for violations of their own terms of service, and AWS follows suit with its own suspension notice.

Amazon says that the reason why it cut off Parler is that the site allowed the hosting of violent content. From The Guardian:

But it was Amazon’s decision to stop hosting the network, from 8am on Monday UK time, which was the killer blow. The website relied on Amazon’s cloud computing business, AWS, to operate, and over the weekend, the online retailer confirmed it would be cutting ties with Parler.

“Recently, we’ve seen a steady increase in … violent content on your website, all of which violates our terms,” Amazon said in a letter to Parler. “It also seems that Parler is still trying to determine its position on content moderation. You remove some [content] when contacted by us or others, but not always with urgency. Your CEO recently stated publicly that he doesn’t ‘feel responsible for any of this, and neither should the platform’.”

“We cannot provide services to a customer that is unable to effectively identify and remove content that encourages or incites violence against others,” Amazon concluded.

In response, Parler decided to sue Amazon. From Al Jazeera:

Parler LLC, a social networking service favoured by many supporters of United States President Donald Trump, sued Inc on Monday, accusing its internet hosting service of making an illegal, politically motivated decision to shut down its account.

In an antitrust complaint filed with the US District Court in Seattle, Parler accused Amazon of hypocrisy for suggesting a lack of confidence that it could police its platform, including by finding and removing content that encouraged violence.

Parler said Amazon Web Services shut down its account on Sunday night despite making no threats to suspend Twitter Inc, where it said one of the top-trending tweets on Friday night had been “Hang Mike Pence,” a reference to the US vice president.

“AWS’s decision to effectively terminate Parler’s account is apparently motivated by political animus,” the complaint said. “Parler has not only lost current and future customers, but Parler has also been unable to find an alternative web hosting company. In short, AWS false claims have made Parler a pariah.”

Those last comments are interesting because other reports suggests that Parler has, indeed, found a new home – at least the domain name anyway. From Yahoo! News:

After Amazon Web Services (AWS) severed ties with Parler, citing the social-media platform’s history of hosting far-right extremist content that contributed to Wednesday’s riot at the US Capitol, the social platform appears to have found a new home.

Parler registered its domain with Epik, a company known for hosting other far-right websites including Gab, according to publicly available WHOIS information. The news was first reported by James Iles, a writer whose blog focuses on domain names.

In a statement released Monday, Epik said that the company had “no contact or discussions with Parler in any form” prior to the website registering its domain with them. Epik added that “to date, no communication has been received by them for discussion of future service provision.”

The statement went on to rail against social-media companies for their increased moderation. “The staggering size of Twitter and Facebook alone, have made real change or accountability almost impossible, as the political interests and objectives of their own executives end up creating an undeniable double standard for both policing and enforcement,” Epik SVP Robert Davis writes, appearing to reference the platforms’ decisions to ban President Donald Trump.

A number of right wing commentators are trying to say that the bans issued by sites like Twitter and Facebook violate their freedom of speech. This appears to be an effort to garner sympathy for Trump who instigated the siege of the US Capitol. The problem with that argument is that these are private companies that are doing the banning. If the US government was somehow maintaining and owning a social media platform, then a case might b made about freedom of speech because the government can’t simply ban speech it doesn’t happen to like. Of course, this is not the scenario we are seeing here.

Instead, a more appropriate equivalent would be a bar having to deal with an unruly customer. That bar has the right to get its bouncer to toss that customer out on its rear end outside. It’s not a violation of speech, but rather, a private company deciding what goes and what doesn’t on its own private property. This is precisely what social media is doing here. Nothing is stopping you from disagreeing with the move, but to say that getting banned from a private social media platform is a violation of your free speech isn’t really accurate at all.

What we are seeing here is that a full blown insurrection, like many other’s, is a bride too far. This in light of how many people were asking where the line was when it comes to what is acceptable for high profile people and what is not.

Shortly after the decision to ban Trump, the Electronic Frontier Foundation issued a statement on the situation:

Like most people in the United States and around the world, EFF is shocked and disgusted by Wednesday’s violent attack on the U.S. Capitol. We support all those who are working to defend the Constitution and the rule of law, and we are grateful for the service of policymakers, staffers, and other workers who endured many hours of lockdown and reconvened to fulfill their constitutional duties.

The decisions by Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and others to suspend and/or block President Trump’s communications via their platforms is a simple exercise of their rights, under the First Amendment and Section 230, to curate their sites. We support those rights. Nevertheless, we are always concerned when platforms take on the role of censors, which is why we continue to call on them to apply a human rights framework to those decisions. We also note that those same platforms have chosen, for years, to privilege some speakers—particularly governmental officials—over others, not just in the U.S., but in other countries as well. A platform should not apply one set of rules to most of its users, and then apply a more permissive set of rules to politicians and world leaders who are already immensely powerful. Instead, they should be precisely as judicious about removing the content of ordinary users as they have been to date regarding heads of state. Going forward, we call once again on the platforms to be more transparent and consistent in how they apply their rules—and we call on policymakers to find ways to foster competition so that users have numerous editorial options and policies from which to choose.

What is particularly noteworthy is how the organization didn’t outright condemn the ban in the first place. Instead, the organization noted what many others, including ourselves, have noted about the situation with Trump: that there is one set of rules for some, and another set of rules for everyone else. This has been a long-standing problem on these platforms for a very long time. The most common example in the US is how high profile right wing voices tend to be coddled and free of consequences for their actions. Others, however, get to experience the ban hammer in pretty quick fashion.

This is partly why Trumps ban is so significant. Twitter has a long history of seemingly keeping a hands off approach to Trump. Back in May, it became headline news when Twitter finally took minor action when Trump tweeted false comments about mail-in ballots. In response, Twitter attached a warning label to the tweet urging people to get the facts about warning label. It was headline news back then because Twitter was finally doing something about the presidents habit of posting false or misleading content all the time.

After the November election, Trump racked up warning labels seemingly not really caring about how Twitter was adding labels to his tweets. Some suggested that Trump racked up well over one hundred warning labels in a short period of time. As a result, some criticized Twitter for not doing enough to stop the spread of false information.

The recent Trump ban was a major step up for the platform, though. Some suggest that it was too little too late in light of just how many additional chances Twitter gave Trump – something that is generally not afforded to average users who violate the rules and/or the law.

So, indeed, the comments about calling for fairness across the board is certainly well-founded. In addition to this, the EFF also pointed out about how there needs to be more transparency about how rules are enforced. Indeed, a number of decisions are often done with little to no explanation. So, added transparency certainly wouldn’t hurt by any means.

A few days later, however, the EFF issued a follow-up write-up about how Parler got cut off. They expressed much more concern about the decision to cut off the site. From the EFF:

Last week, following riots that saw supporters of President Trump breach and sack parts of the Capitol building, Facebook and Twitter made the decision to give the president the boot. That was notable enough, given that both companies had previously treated the president, like other political leaders, as largely exempt from content moderation rules. Many of the president’s followers responded by moving to Parler. This week, the response has taken a new turn. Infrastructure companies much closer to the bottom of the technical “stack”— including Amazon Web Services (AWS), and Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS app stores—decided to cut off service not just to an individual but to an entire platform. Parler has so far struggled to return online, partly through errors of its own making, but also because the lower down the technical stack, the harder it is to find alternatives, or re-implement what capabilities the Internet has taken for granted.

Whatever you think of Parler, these decisions should give you pause. Private companies have strong legal rights under U.S. law to refuse to host or support speech they don’t like. But that refusal carries different risks when a group of companies comes together to ensure that certain speech or speakers are effectively taken offline altogether.

Although we have numerous concerns with the manner in which social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter make decisions about speech, we viewed Zoom’s decision differently. Companies like Facebook and YouTube, for good or ill, include content moderation as part of the service they provide. Since the beginning of the pandemic in particular, however, Zoom has been used around the world more like a phone company than a platform. And just as you don’t expect your phone company to start making decisions about who you can call, you don’t expect your conferencing service to start making decisions about who can join your meeting.

It is precisely this reason that Amazon’s ad-hoc decision to cut off hosting to social media alternative Parler, in the face of public pressure, should be of concern to anyone worried about how decisions about speech are made in the long run. In some ways, the ejection of Parler is neither a novel, nor a surprising development. Firstly, it is by no means the first instance of moderation at this level of the stack. Prior examples include Amazon denying service to WikiLeaks and the entire nation of Iran. Secondly, the domestic pressure on companies like Amazon to disentangle themselves from Parler was intense, and for good reason. After all, in the days leading up to its removal by Amazon, Parler played host to outrageously violent threats against elected politicians from its verified users, including lawyer L. Lin Wood.

But infrastructure takedowns nonetheless represent a significant departure from the expectations of most users. First, they are cumulative, since all speech on the Internet relies upon multiple infrastructure hosts. If users have to worry about satisfying not only their host’s terms and conditions but also those of every service in the chain from speaker to audience—even though the actual speaker may not even be aware of all of those services or where they draw the line between hateful and non-hateful speech—many users will simply avoid sharing controversial opinions altogether. They are also less precise. In the past, we’ve seen entire large websites darkened by upstream hosts because of a complaint about a single document posted. More broadly, infrastructure level takedowns move us further toward a thoroughly locked-down, highly monitored web, from which a speaker can be effectively ejected at any time.

Going forward, we are likely to see more cases that look like Zoom’s censorship of an academic panel than we are Amazon cutting off another Parler. Nevertheless, Amazon’s decision highlights core questions of our time: Who should decide what is acceptable speech, and to what degree should companies at the infrastructure layer play a role in censorship?

At EFF, we think the answer is both simple and challenging: wherever possible, users should decide for themselves, and companies at the infrastructure layer should stay well out of it. The firmest, most consistent, approach infrastructure chokepoints can take is to simply refuse to be chokepoints at all. They should act to defend their role as a conduit, rather than a publisher. Just as law and custom developed a norm that we might sue a publisher for defamation, but not the owner of the building the publisher occupies, we are slowly developing norms about responsibility for content online. Companies like Zoom and Amazon have an opportunity to shape those norms—for the better or for the worse.

Meanwhile, Trump’s long list of bans in the last little while has one notable exception: YouTube. From Fortune:

There’s one holdout to the quick succession of social media companies banning President Trump: YouTube.

Trump’s account on the video-streaming service remains available after Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat banned him following the Capitol riots.

On Trump’s account, visitors can find clips from Fox News in which he, Donald Trump Jr., and Lara Trump riled up supporters at the rally critics say incited the riot.

YouTube explained its decision to keep Trump’s account active by saying it has a three-strike policy, which permanently boots users who violate the service’s policies within 90 days. But Trump has not received any strikes within the last 90 days, the company said.

One strike earns users a one-week suspension while two strikes come with a three-week ban.

“Our three-strikes system clearly outlines the penalty for violating our policies, from temporary restrictions on uploading or livestreaming to account termination for channels that receive three strikes in the same 90-day period,” Alex Joseph, a YouTube spokesperson, said in an email to Fortune. “We consistently apply these regardless of who owns the channel.”

Interestingly enough, civil rights organizations are calling for the removal of Trump’s account. From Reuters:

U.S. civil rights groups will organize an advertiser boycott against Alphabet’s YouTube if it does not remove President Donald Trump’s channel, the groups told Reuters.

Jim Steyer, one of the organizers of the “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign which led over 1,000 advertisers to boycott Facebook in July, said the groups are demanding YouTube take down Trump’s verified YouTube channel, which has 2.76 million subscribers.

YouTube is the last major tech company that has not banned Trump from posting on its platforms. Facebook, Twitter and Snap Inc have all blocked Trump after supporters of the president stormed the U.S. Capitol last week, leading to five deaths.

Trump’s YouTube channel gives him the opportunity to continue spreading false information that the U.S. election was stolen, Steyer said.

So, while Trump has been largely deplatformed, that deplatforming hasn’t hit absolutely every one of his major accounts yet.

One thing is for sure, this purge has a lot of nuances and will take a while to digest. At the very least, it is, once again, putting the debate over what is expected from the platforms so many use on such a regular basis to the forefront. It’ll be difficult, but one hopes that something productive will come from all of this.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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