Parler's Tragedy of Ineptitude

The Social Network Died of Its Own Fatal Flaws

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 12:13 PM

While I have previously argued against deplatforming in general, when I blogged the other day about the demise of Parler, I defended Apple, saying it had earned the benefit of the doubt with its years long record of responsible action. I think this is important, because if we genuinely want to champion free speech, it is crucial to focus our energies on the genuine threats to free speech and not to waste effort on incidents that are really something else.

Continued developments bear out my initial assertion that Apple’s decision was based (like the corresponding actions of its tech frenemies) on policies normally accepted within civil society and not a dark ideological conspiracy. Let me highlight two such matters.

The first development relates to Parler’s attempt to sue Amazon over terminating their service. Amazon responded in its court filing in part by giving a sample of the comments it had reported to Parler and which the social network had failed to deal with. The samples are filled with explicit language, vile slurs and threats of murder. (Although private companies are not bound by the First Amendment, many of the examples fall well outside the realm of protected speech, even if that amendment did apply here.) Failure for a hosting client to deal with that sort of content when reported to them by their hosting provider would unquestionably be a violation of the terms Amazon requires every client it hosts to abide by.

Amazon gives significant details of its multiple attempts to get Parler to comply with its Terms of Service over the course of two months. By all indications, Parler never took meaningful action to comply with the service terms it had agreed to abide by even after this. Just to reiterate what I said the other day, if my hosting provider notified me I was hosting content that threatened murder of various people and I failed to swiftly purge it, they almost certainly would not give me two months to rectify it. In other words, Amazon appears to have gone above and beyond normal procedures in the hosting world to avoid taking dramatic action against Parler.

Yes, plenty of sites post such things; plenty of sites violate their terms of service in all sorts of ways. However, once such violations are noted by the hosting provider (Amazon, in this case) and brought formally to the client (Parler, here), the burden is on the client to remove the content. That’s just how these things work in the hosting industry.

Amazon AWS is one of the best providers of cloud hosting, but it does not have monopoly power. Contrary to Parler’s allegations, its ongoing problem is that every major cloud hosting platform requires the same sort of incredibly basic moderation Amazon does, so no one is eager to take on an organization that has proven itself unwilling or unable to comply with those terms. Such moderation is a part of normal social media operations, incidentally, not an odd standard for Parler.

In an ironic Big Tech twist, Twitter actually suspended a left wing activist’s account in November for that person’s comparatively tame threat against Parler itself. This is not the first such action Twitter has taken against the Left, either.

Parler could do like other major social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, and self-determine its future by hosting itself rather than depending on another company’s platform — they do not need to use a cloud hosting provider. Cloud providers are relatively new as a way to manage Internet infrastructure.

So why would the company place itself at the mercy of Amazon if it did not have to? Morever, why would Parler repeatedly fail to remove content I think almost anyone, regardless of political persuasion, would agree was obscene and quite possibly even illegal?

I believe the second news story of the week gives us the answer to both of these questions. From a purely technological standpoint, Parler was run in a shockingly incompetent fashion.

A massive trove of most of the data posted to Parler — perhaps as much as 99% of the site’s content — was “scraped” off the system before it shut down due to the poor design of the site. This was not just public facing information, but the precise location information of the network’s users. This was information the company should not have been retaining at all or, if it felt obliged to keep it, it should have ensured was properly encrypted to protect its users. Apple actually suspended one of Facebook’s developer accounts for a time for a less damaging violation of user privacy than what Parler just committed.

Instead of its users being angry at Amazon, Apple and Google that Parler was shutdown, those users should be angry at Parler for failing its basic duty to protect its users’ private information. It is guilty of technological malpractice that has left its users wide open to harassment and identity theft.

Exposing such a staggering amount of personal information would be a huge news story in its own right on a normal week. Consider this map that pinpoints the GPS coordinates of Parler users’ posts across the United States. This visual example of the data the service leaked is, as one friend commented to me, “breathtaking.” It should not have happened. And it did not happen because of incredibly clever hackers, but an incredibly poor design of Parler’s system.

In classical tragedy, the tragic hero dies of his own fatal flaw that comes back to bite him. Assuming Parler is not brought back online in some form, it too will die of its own fatal flaws. It will not die because it was the last stand to protect First Amendment speech, but because of poor design and management that led it to fail to remove content that was decidedly not protected by the First Amendment, failed to protect its users personal data and failed to protect its own destiny by building its own technological infrastructure like the “big boys” it wanted to pretend to be the counterpart to.

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. He also serves as a pastor at Little Hills Church and FaithTree Christian Fellowship.

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