The creators of social network Parler have sued Amazon for ending a web hosting agreement after last week’s riot at the US Capitol. Parler claims Amazon Web Services severed ties to stop Parler from competing with the larger social platform Twitter, and it’s asking a court to stop Amazon from shutting down its account — arguing that an extended shutdown would be like “pulling the plug on a hospital patient on life support.”
Parler bills itself as a more permissive alternative to Facebook and Twitter, particularly as those sites have cracked down on President Donald Trump and his supporters for seeking to violently overturn the US election results. That stance has earned backlash from digital infrastructure companies. Apple and Google removed the Parler app from their stores, limiting its reach. Amazon dealt an even more fatal blow when it kicked Parler off AWS, taking the site down altogether.
The lawsuit sheds some light on Amazon’s rationale for banning Parler. In an email, Amazon’s moderation team says it is “troubled” by repeated policy violations. The email cites 98 posts that incite violence. It includes screenshots of a call to hang “traitors,” as well as an exhortation to “start systematicly assasinating [sic]” liberal leaders, supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, and others in January — with a note that “I already have a news worthy event planned.” Amazon said publicly that it “cannot provide services to a customer that is unable to effectively identify and remove content that encourages or incites violence against others.”
AWS is the world’s largest cloud service provider, controlling approximately one-third of the market, followed by competitors like Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure. Parler argues that getting kicked off AWS was a “death knell” for the site, since it’s been unable to find another host. And it claims Amazon made the call to protect Twitter, since the two companies signed a multiyear deal for web services last year. It also says it was banned because of “political animus.”
Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have questioned the power of infrastructure providers to suppress speech online. “It’s understandable that no company would want to be associated with the repellant speech that is now rampant,” ACLU attorney Ben Wizner told New York Times reporter Davey Alba. Nonetheless, “there will be times when large majorities of people want to repel speech that is genuinely important. So I think we should encourage, in a broad sense, companies like Amazon to embrace neutrality principles.”
As a private company, however, Amazon has broad legal latitude to cut off customers. It’s also not necessarily responsible for Parler’s difficulty in finding a new host. While the suit says AWS’s public statements about moderation have “made Parler a pariah,” activists were already pressuring companies to cut ties with the site.
An Amazon spokesperson told The Verge that there was “no merit” to the suit’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. 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,” said the spokesperson. “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 Sunday evening.”
Parler’s lawsuit echoes a similar complaint by Gab, another social network favored by far-right figures. Gab sued Google in 2017 for kicking it off the Play Store, claiming it amounted to anti-competitive behavior. However, it dropped the suit after Google allowed it to resubmit the app for review.