This illustration picture shows social media application logo from Parler displayed on a smartphone with its website in the background in Arlington, Virginia on July 2, 2020. Credit - Olivier Douliery—AFP/Getty Images
Apple, Google, and Amazon have all made one thing abundantly clear over the past two weeks: they’re not playing any Parler games.
Following Jan. 6’s attack on the U.S. Capitol, the trio—some of the world’s most powerful and influential companies, and among the top five U.S. firms by market capitalization—quickly booted Parler, an upstart social media platform that’s become a right-wing darling and was reportedly used by many of the Capitol insurrectionists, from the App Store, Google Play store, and Amazon Web Services, or AWS. Parler, the tech giants argued, has not done enough to moderate or police content posted there, and was thus in violation of their various terms of service.
Much has been made over Apple and Google’s decisions, and for good reason: it’s a household name and pretty much everyone with a smartphone interacts with the App Store or Google Play store on a regular basis. But the decision by AWS may be a seminal moment in the slow evolution of the Internet from government- and academia-driven innovation to a corporatist marketplace.
When Apple or Google shows a company the door, it means that firm’s app will no longer be available for download through the respective company’s app store. That’s a big blow, to be sure—just ask Fortnite creator Epic Games, which is engaged in an epic legal battle with Apple after getting kicked off the App Store over its attempt to bypass Apple’s 30% cut from Epic’s sales there. But even without the App Store, Fortnite’s doing just fine, playable on a swath of other platforms, from Android smartphones to Sony’s PlayStation consoles. If you want to distribute a mobile app, Apple and Google are pretty much the only games in town—a problematic duopoly, to be sure, but you can do a lot with the mobile web these days; not everyone needs an app.
Amazon kicking a company off AWS, however, can be a death punch. AWS isn’t an app store, it’s a cloud computing service. In ye olden times, companies that wanted to do much of anything having to do with the Internet generally had to run their own servers, a complicated, costly and time-consuming enterprise mostly reserved for the largest firms. Then came cloud providers like AWS, which rent servers (and offer myriad other services) on demand—you or I could go over to AWS and have something running on AWS servers in minutes.
Cloud computing seems basic today, but it was a revolutionary concept, serving as the backbone for pretty much the entire modern digital startup ecosystem—eliminating the costly and time-consuming process of spinning up your own servers got rid of an immense hurtle for fledgling companies, making them better able to compete with—and in some cases topple—existing hegemons. But that convenience came at a cost: modern Internet services are increasingly built on AWS and its rivals, like Microsoft Azure and IBM Cloud. That has given those firms tremendous sway over what conduct is and is not acceptable on the Internet—in terms of free speech, they have become even more powerful than, say, Apple. It’s one thing to stop offering an app, it’s another to destabilize or block another company’s entire online operation.
Whether AWS and rival services should wield such power is the central debate in Parler’s subsequent lawsuit against Amazon, which underscores just how reliant Parler was upon AWS—Parler, the suit says, has “no other options” to be online other than AWS. That’s a dubious claim at best: theoretically speaking, there’s little stopping Parler from going old-school and running its own servers, especially if they’re hosted outside the United States, a common move among similarly dubious services looking to avoid the wrath of the moderators, be they corporate overlords or law enforcement (indeed, Parler has since turned to a Russian company for help in getting at least partially online). There are plenty of AWS alternatives, too. But one consequence of building a service to run on a platform like AWS is that it can be awfully hard to migrate elsewhere—engineers might “optimize their entire tech stack” for AWS—or, in English, make everything work well with it in a way that’s difficult to transpose. And it’s doubtful that few of AWS’ rivals would welcome Parler for the same reasons Amazon has rejected it.
Based on the lawsuit it seems that Amazon was within its rights when kicking Parler off its platform—expect the company’s lawsuit to be thrown out—because even prior to Jan. 6 AWS had raised questions about how Parler was moderating violent threats.
It was also probably the right move, especially amid concerns that extremists were using social media and encrypted chat apps to plan more chaos during President Joe Biden’s inauguration. And even if Parler could easily migrate to its own servers, there would be other ways to counter it, including pressuring companies who advertise there, offer it services like cybersecurity protection, or otherwise support it. Nonetheless, the episode underscores the dramatic extent to which the Internet—once popularly imagined as a digital Wild West of free thought—is now very much under corporate control. What that means will likely dominate the years ahead.