What to make of the Parler shutdown

In the wake of the “assault” on the US Capitol (in quotation marks, because if you look at the video footage, it really seems a lot more like LARPing than an actual attempt at insurrection), everyone was all abuzz about how the social-media giants were handling Trump’s accounts (Twitter gave him a “permanent suspension” (I don’t think they know what one of those two words means), Facebook prevented him from posting for 24 hours, and YouTube took one of his videos down), These are all big deals, and crystalize a discussion that’s been happening for at least four years now: what is the responsibility of these companies. But, their collective decision around the Parler app is a much bigger deal. Parler is a social network, similar to Twitter, but primarily catering to the extreme-right crowd. Apple and Google both removed the Parler app from their app stores, but more significantly Amazon shut down their servers. Some things to ponder:

  • This isn’t a US 1st Amendment issue — the US 1st Amendment (freedom of speech, amongst other things) is about prohibiting the US government from making laws; it says nothing about private individuals or companies.
  • We’ve been talking about this for 20 years, and don’t have an answer — what are Facebook, Google, and Twitter? For that matter, what is the Internet? These aren’t newspapers, nor telephone companies, nor the public square. At least since Cass Sunstein published Republic.com in 2001, we’ve been aware of the problems with the Internet as a public forum — including the propensity for the creation of filter bubbles, and whether any of this is good for democracy or not. The social-media giants have exacerbated the situation more than anyone could have imagined, but we still haven’t figured out a solution. Do we want these companies deciding what we get to see? As with most things, it appears most people want them to censor some stuff, but not the stuff they want to see. This is an incredibly tricky problem.
  • These companies may be American, but the Internet and their reach are global — I’ve written several times about the issues of regulating the tech companies, but it’s usually been in the context of anti-trust legislation, or privacy. The same things apply here. The rest of the world may not care what the US decides these companies can or should do. How long until some despotic countries start writing “must cary” laws, e.g., forcing the social-media companies to share without filtering the messages of their Fearless Leader?
  • Platforms are scary — cloud computing gave us the ability to quickly spin-up technology solutions, and equally quickly to scale them; but, it’s extremely expensive, if even possible, to have a “multi-cloud” solution (e.g., to host your app on Amazon AWS, with a backup app on Google Cloud or Microsoft Azure). These clouds are all programmatically driven, but the programming “language” is different, and they don’t all have exactly the same features and functionality. it’s as if, back in the old days, you had to write your program in both Fortran and COBOL, and then keep it current in both, in case one of them failed. Aside from the technical and financial challenges, there’s a moral question here, too — do we want these infrastructure providers deciding who can run what programs on their servers? Of course, the minute someone discovered a pedophilia app, we’d expect Amazon to shut it down; but, as with all of these things, where’s the line? If they have the power to turn off any niche app whenever they want, well … that’s an awful lot of power. And the same regulatory questions (including their global position, and the fact that the line will be in a different place everywhere) apply.

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