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Cut off from the cloud: How free speech-touting Parler became a tech industry pariah

Now Amazon, Google and Apple have all cut ties with controversial, free speech-championing social networking site Parler, claims made by its CEO that it will bounce back are starting to ring hollow

If a week is considered to be a long time in the world of politics, the past seven days must have felt like an entire lifetime for the users and employees of stricken, free speech-championing social media platform Parler.

Since its inception in September 2018, Parler has sought to position itself as an alternative to mainstream social media sites by providing a safe haven for public figures who – as a result of their words and actions – have found themselves banned from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the like.

The company embarked on a user recruitment drive in May 2020 to court Twitter users who may have been unhappy at a marked uptick in the site’s efforts to curb the spread of political misinformation on its platform, such as labelling some posts by president Donald Trump as misleading and potentially inaccurate.

In the months that followed, Parler started to secure endorsements and account sign-ups by outspoken, right-wing and conservative provocateurs and high-profile conspiracy theorists, which the company claimed caused user numbers to surge.

According to a lawsuit filed by the company on Monday 11 January 2021, this surge in user numbers was set to continue. But those projections occurred before details of the supporting role Parler and its users played in the coordination of the deadly insurrection that occurred at Capitol Hill in Washington DC on Wednesday 6 January 2021.

The attack left five people dead, including one police officer, and the incident has since been described by incoming US president Joe Biden as one of the darkest days in American history. And Parler’s reported involvement in its orchestration has seen some of the world’s biggest tech firms take steps to distance themselves from the platform and its users.

So much so that, in the course of a week, the Parler team has gone from boasting about its growth in user numbers and the fact its app is topping the app download charts, to finding its platform effectively wiped clean from the internet, and fighting for survival.

Wiped clean from the internet

Parler’s erasure from the online world started with the news, on Saturday 9 January 2021, that Apple and Google had removed the Parler app from their respective online app stores. It ended with Amazon Web Services (AWS) following through with its threat to terminate its cloud hosting deal with the firm from midnight on Sunday 10 January 2021.

Parler’s website and app have been offline ever since, and it responded by filing an antitrust and breach of contract lawsuit against AWS, which accuses the public giant of failing to give it 30 days’ notice of its intention to terminate its hosting deal.

“[This] is the equivalent of pulling the plug on a hospital patient on life support. It will kill Parler’s business – at the very time it is set to skyrocket”
Parler lawsuit against AWS

“[This] is the equivalent of pulling the plug on a hospital patient on life support. It will kill Parler’s business – at the very time it is set to skyrocket,” the lawsuit states.

The 19-page suit further alleges that the fact AWS recently signed a multi-year cloud deal with Twitter may have influenced its decision to cut Parler loose, given its user numbers were rising on the back of Twitter enforcing a permanent ban against Trump using the site from Friday 8 January 2021.

“When Twitter announced…it was permanently banning president Trump from its platform, conservative users began to flee Twitter en-masse for Parler. The exodus was so large that the next day, Parler became the number one free app downloaded from Apple’s App Store,” the lawsuit stated.

It continued: “Given the context of Parler’s looming threat to Twitter and the fact that the Twitter ban might not long muzzle the president if he switched to Parler, potentially bringing tens of millions of followers with him, AWS moved to shut down Parler.”

In a letter, obtained by Buzzfeed, the AWS trust and safety team set out its intention to Parler’s chief policy officer, Amy Peikoff, of its plans to terminate the company’s hosting deal from midnight on Sunday 11 January 2021.

The attack on Capitol Hill is referenced among the reasons why AWS is taking this course of action, and the letter goes on to say that the company is “troubled” by the “repeated violations” of its terms of service occurring on Parler. These include 98 examples Amazon has shared with the company of posts and content that appear to incite violence.

“It’s clear Parler does not have an effective process to comply with the AWS terms of service. It also seems that Parler is still trying to determine its position on content moderation. You remove some violent content when contacted by us or others, but not always with urgency,” the letter stated.

“[The company] shared…a plan to more proactively moderate violent content, but to do so manually with volunteers. It’s our view that this nascent plan…will not work in light of the rapidly growing number of violent posts.

“This is further demonstrated by the fact that you still have not taken down much of the content we’ve sent you. Given the unfortunate events that transpired this past week in Washington, DC, there is a serious risk that this type of content will further incite violence,” the letter continued.

The Parler lawsuit, however, appears to take issue with AWS’s justification, before going on to seemingly accuse the company of double standards by citing the fact that “Hang Mike Pence” – which constitutes a violent threat against the US vice-president – recently appeared as a trending topic on Twitter.

“But AWS has no plans nor has it made any threats to suspend Twitter’s account,” the lawsuit added.

At the time of writing, Twitter had declined to comment on the case, while an AWS spokesperson told Computer Weekly – in a statement – there was no merit to Parler’s claims.

“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,” the company spokesperson said.

“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.

“We made our concerns known to Parler over a number of weeks and, during that time, we saw a significant increase in this type of dangerous content, not a decrease, which led to our suspension of their services on Sunday evening,” the spokesperson continued.

Back to Earth with a bump

As the lawsuit states, the AWS suspension could spell the end for Parler, which is at odds with the bullish comments initially made by its CEO – John Matze – as the countdown to Amazon switching off its servers played out.

In a post on Parler, Matze told users that he anticipated the site would be down for up to a week, as it set about finding an alternative cloud host for the data and workloads used to run its social media platform.

“We prepared for events like this by never relying on Amazon’s proprietary infrastructure and building bare metal products,” he said in a post, dated Saturday 9 January 2021.

“We will try our best to move to a new provider right now as we have many competing for our business. However, Amazon, Google and Apple purposefully did this as a coordinated effort knowing our options would be limited and knowing this would inflict the most damage right as president Trump was banned from the tech companies,” Matze added.

“This was a coordinated attack by the tech giants to kill competition in the marketplace. We were too successful too fast. You can expect the war on competition and free speech to continue, but don’t count us out.”

When this statement was made, what Matze may not have counted on was that Amazon, Apple and Google would be far from the only members of the tech community wanting to distance themselves from Parler.

“When all of the tier one, and most of the tier two, players tell you your business is no longer welcome, you are restricted to a bunch of dodgy places that do not have anything significant to offer”
Corey Quinn, The Duckbill Group

Matze later confirmed that everyone from “text message” to “email providers”, and even its legal team, had deserted the company in the wake of Amazon, Apple and Google severing ties with the firm.

“We will likely be down longer than expected. This is not due to software restrictions – we have our software and everyone’s data ready to go,” said Matze, in a statement circulated to the Parler user base.

“Rather it [is] that Amazon’s, Google’s and Apple’s statements to the press about dropping our access has caused most of our other vendors to drop their support for us as well. And most people with enough servers to host us have shut their doors to us.”

Bouncing back from that will not be without its challenges for Parler because there are – by its own admission – other conservative-focused social media sites waiting in the wings to hoover up its user base, but very few providers now willing to host its app and website.

“When all of the tier one, and most of the tier two, players tell you your business is no longer welcome, you are restricted to a bunch of dodgy places that do not have anything significant to offer,” Corey Quinn, chief cloud economist at AWS-focused market watcher The Duckbill Group, told Computer Weekly.

“That leaves you susceptible to being blown off the internet by a $100 distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack that someone angry purchases because you’ve enraged them. This stuff is hard, and without the scale of something like AWS or CloudFlare protecting you, you really are dead in the water when your [business] model includes p**ing half of the US off,” he said.

Parler could attempt to go it alone and host its operations within its own datacentre setup, continued Quinn, but that is likely to take a while to do, and time is not really on Parler’s side right now.

“They could absolutely do it and – if they rush – [completing that] by June 2021 is potentially feasible. It comes down to what  being ‘up’ mean to the company? A landing page with a sign-up form? Sure, that can be up in a week. The core service with its history? That is a very heavy lift, and that goes double for when no tier one companies want you on their platform,” he added. 

Realistically, the odds on the Parler app and website re-emerging at this point look “pretty grim”, Nick McQuire, vice-president of enterprise research at CCS Insight, told Computer Weekly.

“Parler could build its own hosting infrastructure, and that wouldn’t be without precedent, but it’s a huge and costly undertaking that will take months, if not years, and you still have the added dilemma of not being present on the major app stores, which despite some workaround options, is a major challenge,” he said.

“As the major tier one and tier two western cloud providers will likely support AWS’s move, it does pose the question as to whether a player from the east like Alibaba or Tencent would step into the ring to save Parler, but the chances of this happening are definitely low at this point.”

Where does the liability start and end?

So while the future looks bleak for Parler, AWS’s decision to boot the company off its cloud has prompted renewed questions about whether or not the cloud provider community should be acting more proactively to police how their services are used.

AWS, in this instance, appears to have been actively monitoring Parler for activity that would put the site in breach of its terms of use, based on the contents of the letter obtained by Buzzfeed.

The company has also terminated hosting arrangements with other organisations in the past for terms of use violations, including the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks back in 2010. In that case, it pulled the plug claiming the site was publishing content that it did not own and without ensuring that its publication would not lead to others coming to harm.

According to Quinn, it would be difficult for AWS (and others) to keep tabs at a workload level on how its customers use its cloud, but AWS does have robust reporting systems in place so anyone attempting to use its services for nefarious deeds is swiftly brought to its attention.  

“No cloud provider wants to be in the business of checking what their users are up to – and depending on how the customers configure things, in some cases that becomes physically impossible for some workloads,” he said.

“It sounds odd, but the way AWS finds out about these things is from complaints to its abuse system; they’re not out there actively sifting through customer data. And again, when configured properly they’re not able to do this.”

What this incident may serve to do, though, is prompt the cloud provider community as a whole to take steps to ensure their terms of use policies are being regularly reviewed as the number of organisations relying on them grows and their use cases broaden accordingly, said CCS Insight’s McQuire.

“I think the move will encourage a deeper and ongoing cycle or re-examining of the cloud providers’ acceptable use policies. As these platforms scale and host a vast array of companies, their policies will be constantly tested and it will be important customers constantly review them to ensure they are behaving within the rules too,” he added.

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