Parler and freedom of speech on the Internet

    Similar to Twitter, Parler is a social media platform that allows users to follow other user accounts, upload images, and create text posts of up to 1,000 characters.  Parler has a web version (parler.com) and Android and iOS applications for mobile devices.   

    Over the past few weeks, Parler has come under fire for its part in the riots on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.  Since then, Amazon has stopped Amazon Web Services (AWS) hosting for Parler and Apple and Google have removed it from their app stores.   

    “Every vendor from text message services to email providers to our lawyers all ditched us too on the same day,” Parler CEO John Matze said on Fox News on Jan. 10. 

    Matze went on to claim that these companies “worked together” to make sure that the company would lose access to their apps and remove it from the Internet.   

    The statement that Parler is being removed from the Internet is not completely true, however.  Parler had been using hosting services from AWS, a subsidiary of Amazon.  Parler, as any website could, just as easily use another hosting service.   

    Currently, Parler is back on the Internet, using Epik as its hosting service.  Epik is a web hosting company that provides “legendary customer support” according to its website.  This “legendary customer support” extends to far-right, neo-Nazi, and other extremist content. 

    Gizmodo weekend editor Alyse Stanely wrote that this is consistent with “Epik’s penchant for offering safe havens to toxic websites so full of hateful and violent content that no other web host would touch them with a 10-foot pole.” 

    This brings up an important question.  By not meeting basic moderation needs, are Parler and other social media platforms, including Facebook, responsible for the content posted on their sites and the actions their users decide to take?  Matze believes that the company and the users should be seen as separate.   

    “(Amazon, Apple, and Google) are trying to falsely claim that we were somehow responsible for the events that occurred on (Jan. 6),” Matze said.  “They made an attempt to not only kill the app but to actually destroy the company.” 

    However, many are rejecting this claim by Matze, stating that Parler, like any social media site, should be moderated.   

    “We looked at the incitement of violence that was on there and we don’t consider that free speech and incitement of violence has an intersection,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said in an interview on Fox News.  “We’ve only suspended them and so if they got their moderation together, they would get back on (the App Store).” 

    Is this “moderation” something that Parler can accomplish while staying true to its proclamation that it is a place for “free expression without violence and a lack of censorship?” 

    It’s worthwhile to examine this statement on Parler’s website: “our aim has always been to provide a nonpartisan public square where individuals can enjoy and exercise their rights to (privacy and free speech).”   

    Parler claims that it allows its users to exercise their right of free speech on the Internet, implying complete freedom of speech, which would then include violent and hate speech.  Hate speech is not excluded by the Constitution and it would be difficult to regulate on a platform that prides itself with a lack of moderation. 

    However, Parler may not be able to guarantee absolute freedom of speech to its users.  Like any social media platform, Parler has a Terms of Service agreement its users must agree to abide by.   

    Item 9 reads “Parler may remove any content and terminate your access to the Services at any time and for any reason or no reason … Parler is free to remove content and terminate your access to the Services even where the Guidelines have been followed.”   

    Unfortunately for many Parler users, it seems that this “free speech” platform has the ability to remove content and users from the app at its discretion.  This is a far cry from the absolute freedom of speech and lack of moderation that Parler claims. 

    So what does this mean for freedom of speech on the internet?  And how does Section 230 factor in to how users can exercise their freedom of speech? 

    To start, freedom of speech has always been a touchy subject in the Information Age.  In 2009, Jack Balkin, Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment at Yale Law School wrote, Today, “increasing numbers of Americans access the Internet through network 

providers, either DSL companies or cable companies.  These companies act as conduits for the speech of others.”  Because we are reliant on many different parties (including DSL or cable companies, social media platforms, web hosting services, etc.) to allow citizens to speak freely, it seems almost impossible for there to be absolute freedom of speech on the Internet.   

    Then, one must factor in the fact that most, if not all, Terms of Service agreements have clauses that require users to acknowledge that the entity (in this case, social media companies) have the power to terminate accounts they believe do not fit into their message, as shown in the case of Parler.   

    For the time being, it seems that with Parler off the Internet (they lost their bid to return to AWS hosting), users will have to use another platform.