If you ever wanted evidence of the “Big Tech” force, then the collapse of Parler on Monday morning is a good place to start.
Like several people, I signed on to the infamous social network to see what will happen after 11:59 Pacific Time in the US.
This was the deadline that Amazon had assigned the app to find a new host provider before it launched the site offline for supposedly featuring violent content.
It was seen as a crucial moment in the ongoing efforts of US tech leaders to “deplatform” Donald Trump and some of his radical followers during the U.S. Capitol Hill riot last week.
Trump’s decline on Twitter
The clock reached 12:00, though, and nothing happened. I and millions of other users were also able to check and post as normal.
But then, like dominos, people around the world start reporting issues. For me, at 12:10 a.m., something stopped running. No content was found, a message was read.
With a switch flick then, Parler, a fast-growing app that some saw as a free-talk alternative to Twitter, wasn’t there any more. It’s for now.
Parler will and will eventually be able to locate a new host provider, but losing Amazon Web Services (AWS) – the world’s largest hosting network – means that other big vendors are likely to turn their business away as well.
Technology and Ethics Expert Stephanie Hare says it’s not the first time that a major U.S. tech company has shut down the site for similar reasons.
“Amazon’s action against Parler is not unprecedented, as we have seen other US companies such as Cloudflare remove content delivery services and DDoS (distributed denial-of-service) protection and support to white supremacist website The Daily Stormer in 2017 and 8Chan in 2019 after that website was used by a gunman to post materials before he went on to massacre people in El Paso, Texas,” she added.
It’s not been AWS who has taken action against Parler. Google and Apple have both introduced the service from their app stores.
Again, this isn’t unheard of.
Gab, another website that describes itself as a free expression forum but is accused of being a sanctuary for far-right and racists, is now banned from app stores. It can also be viewed from a web browser and says that there has been an increase of users in recent days.
And as part of the crackdown on accounts related to the attack on Congress, Twitter revealed on Monday that it had taken down “more than 70,000 accounts” linked to the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Facebook, meanwhile, said it was deleting all the contents of “Stop the Steal”-a slogan related to Mr. Trump’s unsubstantiated allegations that the November election was rigged.
Ban on ‘problematic’
What is unusual, though, is a targeted approach to the president.
Since Mr Trump’s followers targeted the US Capitol last week, it has been banned from accessing some of the main social networks, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitch.
YouTube has deleted some of his posts, but said that his channel is on its last chance.
European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, described the change as “problematic”
EU Commissioner Thierry Breton described the incidents on Capitol Hill as “the 9/11 moment of social media” writing in Politico that “the fact that a CEO can pull the plug on Potus’ [President of the United States] loudspeaker without any checks and balances is perplexing”
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that social networks are now “taking editorial decisions” adding that sites are “choosing who should and shouldn’t have a voice”
Elsewhere, Alexei Navalny, a Russian politician and vocal opponent of President Vladimir Putin, compared Mr Trump’s ban on Twitter to state censorship.
He tweeted, “The ban of Donald Trump on Twitter is an unacceptable act of censorship. Of course, Twitter is a private company, but we have seen many examples in Russia and China of such private companies becoming the state’s best friends and the enablers when it comes to censorship.”
Covid has modified the social networks
The irony is that social networks are commercial corporations. Much as a private member club can make house rules for its members, so can Facebook like Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter.
Until now, one of the main principles enforced has been to regard the substance of politicians as relevant to public debate.
Platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, said they would therefore allow high-profile customers, such as the US President, more leeway when it comes to breaking user policies.
But with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, conditions have changed dramatically and businesses have taken increased measures against world leaders.
In March, Facebook and Twitter erased messages from President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela for disinformation from Covid-19.
It wasn’t until May when Twitter took similar measures against the US President after moderators warned behind a tweet that they said they were glorifying violence.
The president tweeted about the Black Lives Matter demonstrations saying, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts”
Social media commentator Matt Navarra says Mr Trump’s ban sets a “a pivotal precedent” in the way networks regulate who can access them and what users can share.
Trump’s vows to fight back
Any analysts believe that action will be a tipping point for technical restraint worldwide.
On Monday, Facebook reported that it had deleted a network of accounts that it believed were directly connected to the Government of Uganda and reportedly used to influence the upcoming election.
Privacy attorney and technologist Whitney Merrill argues that the shift leads to a transition in the moderation of the tech giants.
“Social networks’ rules and guidelines are evolving over time which is normal. But they aren’t being consistently applied throughout the world. I think the president’s removal might be the beginning of a purge for similar behaviour globally.”
In his final hours on Twitter, Mr Trump again criticised a piece of U.S. law called Section 230 for “banning” free expression. During his administration, he threatened to repeal the law that would make social networks largely immune from responsibility for the post of their users.
Some claim that removing security would potentially damage freedom of speech, as networks would be required to moderate even more than they already do.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has claimed that he would like to repeal the bill to improve moderation and minimise the dissemination of false news.
In the same final tweet, Mr Trump said that he was working with “various other sites” and that there will be “a big announcement soon”
If the events of recent days are something to go by, Mr Trump and some of his backers face an uphill battle not only against politicians, but also against tech companies, before they can develop themselves on popular social media.