Parler and Free Speech

Dwayne Harris   ·   About 1,503 words

I want to write about Parler.


Background

Parler1: was that micro-blogging social network and app that marketed itself as an alternative to Twitter. Parler emphasized “free speech”, and presented itself as a place to avoid Twitter and Facebook’s unfair moderation policies.

The creators/owners2 of the service believe that Twitter and Facebook (and the entire media really) are controlled by people who are particularly unconcerned with “free speech”, and are quick to silence or ban anyone on the other side from their services. I’ve seen a few influential3 people on Twitter equating this to a (US Constitution) 1st Amendment issue, of which it obviously is not.

So Parler implied that they care about “free speech” and are therefore a good alternative to these services that are trying to silence them. Predictably, the service attracted lots of people who regularly get banned from other web services and communities. This includes lots of conspiracy theorists, Donald Trump supporters, “conservatives”, right-wing extremists, white supremacists, and people who would decide it’s a good idea to storm the US Capitol building (there is obviously a lot of overlap between the these groups).

Of course, it turns out that services that market themselves as free speech alternatives usually end up heavily moderating and banning users who have the opposite political beliefs as them. Parler was no exception, so… 🤷🏾‍♂️


The Fall of Parler

After the insurrection at the US Capitol, and it first started to become obvious that people from Parler were involved, Apple threatened to remove the iOS app from the App Store unless they improved their moderation practices. Then eventually Google removed the Android app from the Google Play store. Then Apple actually removed them too. Then Amazon stopped hosting the service itself.

In the meantime, other institutions (financial and otherwise) have completely backed away from Parler, Trump, and many of Trump’s supporters4.

At this point, the service is down, the apps are banned, and the company has no real way to survive. Trump supporters and free speech activists are upset about how this turned out. It’s unfair that all these people were silenced for their opinions right?

Nope.


The 1st Amendment to the US Constitution

First of all, the 1st Amendment prevents the Government from being able to abridge freedom of speech. This has nothing to do with individual companies (private or “public”) like Twitter or Facebook. This may be a general “free speech” issue, but there are no violations of the Constitution happening when a company decides what’s allowed or not allowed to be published on their platform.

Now if you’re talking about the US Government pushing for or creating a law that says a company (like Twitter) must publish the current Administrations views, that would definitely be a 1st Amendment violation.

Refresher:

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.

Free Speech

So this isn’t a 1st Amendment issue, but there is a general “free speech” discussion here right? Especially in the context of online communities, politics, and social networks. Clearly a bunch of institutions all deciding to leave a company pathetically twisting in the wind like this over “politics” must be… bad?

Not really no.

Contrary to what I keep seeing elsewhere on the internet, I do not think that an organization (including social networking or micro-blogging service companies) should have any expectation to use the platform they built to host any content anyone wants them to in the name of free speech. Nor do I think their moderation policies are even required to be fair. We choose to use social networking services, and sign agreements (lol) that state how we’re supposed to use them. There is no expectation of “free speech” in that, and there shouldn’t be5.

I think people getting upset with Twitter’s policies and then leaving it to start their own service is fine. That’s a good thing. I actually think that people being able to use technology to form smaller, more community based services is much better than everyone trying to sloppily integrate into a giant platform that’s powered by pure capitalism and advertising revenue.

But you can’t then promise “free speech” on your new service and be surprised when you get fucked over after your users attempt to murder people and overthrow a government and nobody wants to do business with you anymore.

The Tech Monopoly

I’ve heard a few people say that it’s scary that it was a “monopoly” that was able to crush Parler into nothing but a pile of useless code and fresh evidence for the FBI. But it wasn’t a monopoly that did it. It’s not like executives from Apple, Google, Twitter, and Facebook sat in a room and made the decision that because of their combined market position, making a coordinated move like this would be profitable for them all6. A bunch of organizations just decided that associating with Parler is bad (morally, politically, financially, legally, etc) and made the business decisions that made sense in this situation.

Which is to not associate with the platform that inspired people to murder a US Capitol police officer.


Aftermath

As it turns out, not thinking through the implications of aiding insurrectionists wasn’t the only mistake Parler made. I’m looking for more of the technical details, but someone going by @donk_enby on Twitter was able to scrape 57 TB worth of data (images and video with EXIF data, private DMs, deleted posts that were never actually deleted7, etc). It sounds like it just happened to be very easy to guess object IDs in their database and start pulling data once their two-factor authentication system went down.

Now with the massive amount of evidence that’s floating around on the internet (including the insurrectionists own recorded and uploaded footage), now these people are being picked up by the Feds left and right. Well… you know. I guess that’s what happens.


  1. Parler was originally supposed to be pronounced “par-lay”, but it didn’t catch on, so now it’s officially pronounced like you probably think it should be. ↩︎

  2. Dan Bongino is one of the people who claims to have purchased an ownership stake in the service. If you’ve ever come across his Twitter or heard him speak, you might not be too surprised by this. ↩︎

  3. A lot of those people are very rapidly losing that influence these days and it makes me very happy to see. ↩︎

  4. This includes many of the Republican senators like Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz who directly supported Trump’s bullshit, and senators like Josh Hawley, Ron Johnson, John Kennedy, Rick Scott, Kelly Loeffler, and others who voted to oppose the counting of the Electoral College votes, and people like Rudy Giuliani who are clearly completely broken/compromised and continue to support Trump. ↩︎

  5. I think people are confusing what’s good for “business” for a social network, and how they really should moderate. It’s good for business (in this case, total number of users to advertise to) to have a consistent moderation policy. But it’s better for people for these companies to make real, moral, case-by-case decisions about what’s right and wrong and should be allowed, even if it’s not based on specific written policy. ↩︎

  6. But if they did do something like that, I would expect them to be investigated. The concept of abusing a monopoly is a real and specific thing. ↩︎

  7. This is a pretty normal thing to do in modern databases. You usually have a “deleted” date attribute, that if null means the object exists, and if present then the system knows it was deleted on that date and isn’t shown anywhere. I do this for posts and objects in my database to be able to restore things. You should NOT do this with sensitive data like on a platform that encourages its users to talk about and plan federal offenses. ↩︎

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