The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Technology 202: Parler's crawl back online could test tech giants in new ways

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with Aaron Schaffer

Parler’s return sets up a new test for Big Tech.  

The social network favored by former president Donald Trump’s supporters is back online though with slow load times and glitches, as my colleague Rachel Lerman reported. The site was effectively knocked offline following the Jan. 6 Capitol riots after tech companies, including Amazon Web Services, cut business ties with Parler after determining it didn’t do enough to prevent the spread of violence. But the company has now found hosting services from a smaller, lesser-known firm after weeks in crisis. 

(Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post). 

Yet it remans to be seen how Apple and Google will handle Parler's resurgence. 

Parler’s app has yet to return to Apple or Google’s app stores, making it essentially impossible for people to download the Parler app and making the service more difficult to use on mobile phones. The companies' moves to block the social network from their stores roiled conservatives, who have alleged without evidence that tech companies are biased against them. 

Parler appears to be moving to address concerns raised by larger companies that say there’s no place for illegal activity on their platforms. Parler released updated guidelines saying it would not knowingly allow itself to be used for crime, and it also announced it would now be using a “privacy-preserving process” where both humans and algorithms would review and remove content that threatens or incites violence. Parler will also have a process in which users will be able to appeal those decisions. 

Apple and Google did not respond to requests for comment about whether these changes would prompt them to reinstate the app. 

Tech companies’ handling of content associated with the events of Jan. 6 remains under intense Washington scrutiny. 

Members of Congress are gearing up to hold hearings with large tech companies to examine their role in the Capitol violence, as my colleague Tony Romm previously reported. 

And politicians from both parties ranging from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have called for 9/11-style commission reviews of the day’s events, which probably would explore the role of social media. The impeachment process highlighted the critical role of social media in the Capitol violence and it would be unavoidable for any lengthy probe to dig into the day’s questions. 

The return of Parler could also complicate efforts by large tech companies to moderate violent content or disinformation. 

Experts have warned the rise of sites such as Parler could lead to a greater splintering of the Internet. Tech companies have been far more aggressive in removing accounts known for promoting disinformation about the coronavirus, QAnon conspiracy theories or violence in the wake of Jan. 6. But now those users could potentially find a new online megaphone on Parler, which saw a surge in users as tech companies stepped up content moderation during the 2020 election. 

Parler could attract some of the high-profile users exiled from mainstream social networks, most notably Trump. Trump has been uncharacteristically silent since he was permanently banned from Twitter, and Parler had previously approached him about a deal allowing Trump to post exclusively on the site. Documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News showed that Parler offered the Trump Organization a 40 percent stake in the company, raising ethics concerns because the discussions took place while Trump was still in office. 

Parler's return also highlights the persistent big questions about the responsibility tech giants have to police online speech. 

Much of the content moderation debate has been focused on Facebook and Twitter. The Parler case is unique because it underscored how various tech companies can play a powerful role in determining what Americans see online — from infrastructure companies to phone makers. 

SkySilk, the Los Angeles-based company that is now providing services to Parler, argued in a statement to NPR that cloud-hosting companies shouldn't be determining what speech should be allowed online. 

“SkySilk does not advocate nor condone hate, rather, it advocates the right to private judgment and rejects the role of being the judge, jury, and executioner,” SkySilk's chief executive, Kevin Matossian, said in a statement. 

“Once again, this is not a matter of SkySilk endorsing the message, but rather, the right of the messenger to deliver it. SkySilk will support Parler in their efforts to be a nonpartisan Public Square as we are convinced this is the only appropriate course of action,” added.

Our top tabs

Uber asks Europe for a new gig worker law similar to California's rules.

The ride-hail giant, which operates across Europe, made the pitch to European officials including the continent's top digital enforcer, Margrethe Vestager, and jobs commissioner Nicolas Schmit, CNBC’s Ryan Browne reports. The move comes as the company hopes to extend its recent win in California, where voters chose to call gig drivers independent contractors, to other markets such as Europe, where regulators are readying new measures for gig workers.

In a blog post and white paper, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi floated “helping platform workers pay into existing public social protection schemes” and using an “industry-funded portable benefits fund” for workers in Europe. Khosrowshahi also suggested modeling new legislation on California’s law and a “European model of social dialogue.

The California measure, which passed as a ballot initiative called Proposition 22, is controversial because it prevents gig workers from receiving a minimum wage or other key benefits. Gig workers and unions in the state have sued to overturn the measure.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke of inflicting “pain” on Apple.

Zuckerberg said in 2018 that “we need to inflict pain” on the tech giant, the Wall Street Journal’s Deepa Seetharaman, Emily Glazer and Tim Higgins report. News of the private comments comes as the two tech companies' top executives continue to escalate their war of words over privacy practices and market domination.

Apple is preparing to roll out a new privacy measure for iPhone customers that requires them to opt in to ad tracking. Facebook has blasted the move as a threat to small businesses, and is reportedly readying an antitrust lawsuit against Apple.

In a statement to the Journal, Facebook spokeswoman Dani Lever called the choice between personalized services and privacy a “false trade-off,” saying that small businesses, app developers and consumers lose as a result of Apple’s “self-preferencing, anticompetitive behavior.” She denied that the dispute between the two companies is personal. Apple declined to respond.

Google agrees to pay $1.3 million fine over French hotel rankings.

The company agreed to pay up after French authorities said that it displayed “misleading” hotel rankings, the Associated Press reports. The fine comes as regulators around the world including the Justice Department are scrutinizing how Google wields its power in search. 

French authorities say they began their investigation into the hotel ratings in 2019, when hotels complained that Google’s ratings were misleadingly similar to the five-star ratings issued by the country’s tourism agency.

“This practice was particularly damaging for consumers, who were misled about the level of service they could expect when booking accommodation,” France’s competition and privacy watchdog said in a statement. “It was also detrimental to hoteliers whose establishments were wrongly presented as being lower than in the official Atout France classification.” Google said it has “made the necessary changes to only reflect the official French star rating for hotels on Google Maps and Search.”

France last year fined the search giant $120 million for tracking Internet users without their consent.

Rant and rave

In the wake of Parler's rebirth, some (like BBC Monitoring's Alistair Coleman) are previewing the war to come:

Others, like comedian Jeff Cerulli, have focused on the new site's design:

Daybook

  • FCC commissioner Nathan Simington delivers his maiden address at a virtual event hosted by the Free State Foundation today at 11 a.m.
  • A House Energy and Commerce Committee panel holds a hearing on broadband access on Wednesday at 11 a.m.
  • Reddit CEO Steve Huffman, Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev, Reddit user Keith Gill and two hedge fund executives testify before the House Financial Services Committee Thursday at noon. The hearing is centered on meme stock Gamestop’s ups and downs.

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