Amazon’s move against Parler is worrisome in a way that Apple’s and Google’s are not

It’s one thing for Apple and Google to throw the right-wing Twitter competitor Parler out if its app stores. It’s another thing altogether for Amazon Web Services to deplatform Parler. Yet that’s what will happen by midnight today, according to BuzzFeed.

Parler deserves no sympathy, obviously. The service proudly takes even less responsibility for the garbage its members post than Twitter and Facebook do, and it was one of the places where planning for the insurrectionist riots took place. But Amazon’s actions raise some important free-speech concerns.

Think of the internet as a pyramid. Twitter and Facebook, as well as Google and Apple’s app stores, are at the top of that pyramid — they are commercial enterprises that may govern themselves as they choose. Donald Trump is far from the first person to be thrown off social networks, and Parler isn’t even remotely the first app to be punished.

But Amazon Web Services, or AWS, exists somewhere below the top of the pyramid. It is foundational; its servers are the floor upon which other things are built. AWS isn’t the bottom layer of the pyramid — it is, in its own way, a commercial enterprise. But it has a responsibility to respecting the free-speech rights of its clients that Twitter and Facebook do not.

Yet AWS has an acceptable-use policy that reads in part:

You may not use, or encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to use, the Services or AWS Site for any illegal, harmful, fraudulent, infringing or offensive use, or to transmit, store, display, distribute or otherwise make available content that is illegal, harmful, fraudulent, infringing or offensive.

For AWS to cut off Parler would be like the phone company blocking all calls from a person or organization it deems dangerous. Yet there’s little doubt that Parler violated AWS’s acceptable-use policy. Look for Parler to re-establish itself on an overseas server. Is that what we want?

Meanwhile, Paul Moriarty, a member of the New Jersey State Assembly, wants Comcast to stop carrying Fox News and Newsmax, according to CNN’s “Reliable Sources” newsletter. And CNN’s Oliver Darcy is cheering him on, writing:

Moriarty has a point. We regularly discuss what the Big Tech companies have done to poison the public conversation by providing large platforms to bad-faith actors who lie, mislead, and promote conspiracy theories. But what about TV companies that provide platforms to networks such as Newsmax, One America News — and, yes, Fox News? [Darcy’s boldface]

Again, Comcast and other cable providers are not obligated to carry any particular service. Just recently we received emails from Verizon warning that it might drop WCVB-TV (Channel 5) over a fee dispute. Several years ago, Al Jazeera America was forced to throw in the towel following its unsuccessful efforts to get widespread distribution on cable.

But the power of giant telecom companies to decide what channels will be carried and what will not is immense, and something we ought to be concerned about.

I have no solutions. But I think it’s worth pointing out that AWS’s action against Parler is considerably more ominous than Google’s and Apple’s, and that for elected officials to call on Comcast to drop certain channels is more ominous still.

We have some thinking to do as a society.

Earlier:

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9 thoughts on “Amazon’s move against Parler is worrisome in a way that Apple’s and Google’s are not

  1. Steve Ross

    I would be more worried if, eventually, AWS is a near-monopoly. Right now, it is by far the world market leader in massive data centers that (among other things) serve internet content. Google, Apple, Microsoft, Oracle and many other big, international players are among the myriad competitors. It is also fairly easy and cheap to set up a home-grown server system to serve even a large website. Then, the enterprise is subject to internet providers, and in any one location there are likely to be only one or two. Hence the foreign server option you mentioned.

    But there is another issue. For the past few years, friends and colleagues have been tracing internet routing. There is an enormous commonality between, say, the routes Democrat and Republican data travel. This opens up some interesting security issues.

    Along the way, we found hundreds of unsavory AWS customers, including Russian bot sites and highly partisan PACs and websites.

    Was this intentional on the part of bad actors? There are four billion addresses available in the type of internet most of us use (IPv4). There has been a slow migration to IPv6. Big cloud providers like AWS use IPv6 internally, but allocate IPv4 addresses so customers can get data to and from most end-users like us. AWS has been unwilling to discuss how it does the allocation, so the odds of, say Russian bots having the same internet routing as the Democratic National Committee or Senator Warren’s campaign by chance may be very high to have occurred by chance, or astronomically, almost impossibly high. AWS and other cloud providers won’t talk about it.

    Bottom line: While it is tempting to handle this ad hoc, the issues are too big.

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  6. This is the same thing that happened to Stormfront and 8kun.

    https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2017/08/29/waning-storm-stormfrontorg-loses-its-domain
    https://www.thedailybeast.com/8kun-qanons-favorite-website-lost-its-host-but-found-a-new-russian-one

    It’s really nothing new.

    And yes, they’ll go to Russia or the darknet or somesuch.

    A normal website, should they lose their hosting service with a week’s notice, takes their backups, restores them on a new hosting service, tests until stable, and then shuts down the old site. It’s a pain in the butt, but not the end.

    Sites like Stormfront, 8kun and Parler will have problems finding their next home.

    I would honestly be more disturbed if I found that no one worried about whether corporations were hosting people who were organizing murders and assassinations, because it was their right to turn a profit off providing them services.

    Wouldn’t you have something to say about that scenario too?

    It’s not free speech, as Lessig said, to mount an insurrection.

    ‘Under the imminent lawless action test, speech is not protected by the First Amendment if the speaker intends to incite a violation of the law that is both imminent and likely. While the precise meaning of “imminent” may be ambiguous in some cases, the court provided later clarification in Hess v. Indiana (1973) in which the court found that Hess’s words were protected under “his rights to free speech”,[1] in part, because his speech “amounted to nothing more than advocacy of illegal action at some indefinite future time,”[1] and therefore did not meet the imminence requirement.’

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imminent_lawless_action

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clear_and_present_danger

    Also, @Steve Ross, there is a commonality of routes for all internet data that is widely disseminated. There are huge optic cable farms that link major parts of the country and that take our data under the Atlantic and Pacific. Back in the 1970s I knew most of the router names from a traceroute — and it’s not that bad anymore, but it’s not that much different either on any long haul.

    What exactly do you mean that it’s disturbing that the same conduits are used for bot traffic and political party traffic? It sounds like finding it disturbing that all blood is circulated through the heart, lungs and brain.

    1. Steve Ross

      They trace all the way to the dynamically assigned user addresses, through the same switches. For those not familiar, an IPv4 address has four sets of numbers. Having the first three sets the same should be rare. It is as if two people in different cities and working for different companies had the same phone number but different extensions.

      Web users are shielded from the numbers because we usually type in an easily remembered name, and the provider’s domain name server matches it with the numbers.

      Think about how vast the Dulles VA internet hub is… once the largest in the world. But yeah, a typical undersea fiber cable has just 4 or six strands, so everything carried on a cable goes through the same physical switch at each end. From there, the subnets and sub-subnets diverge.

      Btw, most countries require each domain name to have two addresses, which is easy if you contract with a cloud service like AWS. Cumbersome to do it with your own servers but certainly not unheard-of. Our magazine had its own servers until 2007, and then switched to Google. HRC had a server in her basement. Just tied to the Clinton Foundation system and remotely monitored by its contractors.

  7. Marcus J Breen

    These are helpfuI prompts Dan: “I have no solutions. But I think it’s worth pointing out that AWS’s action against Parler is considerably more ominous than Google’s and Apple’s, and that for elected officials to call on Comcast to drop certain channels is more ominous still.

    We have some thinking to do as a society.”

    I agree with Shava’s implicit point: that the the limits have been reached on free speech applications in the globally networked context. Dan, the kind of content regulation debate you have identified has been going on since before the great 2016 Russian hack that Democrats persisted in discussing for four+ years, all while reactionaries were free to make their arrangements to undo liberal society using the same networks.

    For people on the left such as myself, managing the information flows of fascists’ and Nazis’ organizing for riots and State take overs are set to flounder because they are based on liberal democratic standards of decency and tolerance that are at their end.

    Yes, “some thinking to do as a society.” The best solution will be a significant move to the left with major redistributive mechanisms in place to address the material resentments of white supremacists. If they have jobs, universal health care and a sense of a future because middle class, yet unskilled jobs return to their rusty towns, they may have some purpose in life. Of course, the resentments from white supremacists about losing the “war of aggression by the North” will not be so easily addressed – no matter how full their bellies.

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