Newsweek

AF­TER PAR­LER BAN, REIN IN BIG TECH NOW OR CEASE BE­ING FREE CIT­I­ZENS

- By Rachel Bo­vard

IN THE WAKE OF THE PROTESTS AND tragic vi­o­lence at the United States Capi­tol last Wed­nes­day, Par­ler, the pop­u­lar al­ter­na­tive to Twit­ter, is fac­ing an un­prece­dented crack­down from its com­peti­tors. In the span of 48 hours, both Ap­ple and Google an­nounced they would be re­mov­ing the app from their smart­phone app stores. Shortly there­after, Amazon Web Ser­vices an­nounced it would stop host­ing Par­ler, thus also wip­ing out its web com­po­nent.

Sig­nal­ing his thanks, Twit­ter CEO Jack Dorsey—who calls his plat­form one that stands for “free ex­pres­sion” and “em­pow­er­ing di­a­logue”—tweeted out a heart emoji when Par­ler no longer showed up on Ap­ple’s list of pop­u­lar apps.

The ra­tio­nale given by all these Big Tech be­he­moths is that Par­ler doesn’t do enough to mod­er­ate the vi­o­lent threats its users make on its plat­form. This is rich, com­ing from com­pa­nies that host and cir­cu­late Face­book and Twit­ter, where vi­o­lent threats pro­lif­er­ate on a daily ba­sis. Twit­ter has even gone to court, on free speech grounds, to pro­tect the use of its site for or­ga­niz­ing protests—even ones where con­duct is dis­or­derly.

Over the sum­mer, many Black Lives Mat­ter protests were or­ga­nized on so­cial me­dia. Many of those protests later turned vi­o­lent. All told, this sum­mer’s ri­ots, which spanned 140 cities, caused more than $2 bil­lion in dam­age and re­sulted in at least 25 deaths. Has any­one un­der­taken an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the links be­tween those ri­ots and so­cial me­dia?

More­over, when it comes to their own be­hav­ior, these com­pa­nies deny

that any links could pos­si­bly ex­ist be­tween con­tent mod­er­a­tion and off­line harm. Last year, their rep­re­sen­ta­tives sat on stage at a Depart­ment of Jus­tice work­shop and in­sisted that what is said or cir­cu­lated on so­cial me­dia isn’t their fault—they just am­plify reach. Stream­ing a mur­der, for ex­am­ple, isn’t at all the same as com­mit­ting it, they as­serted. They’ve tes­ti­fied be­fore Congress that their plat­forms should not be held in any way re­spon­si­ble for one im­age of a child’s sex­ual abuse cir­cu­lat­ing more than 160,000 times. Law en­force­ment should just do more, they’ve ar­gued.

So to con­demn Par­ler for “not do­ing enough”—to make them li­able, in other words, for any vi­o­lence that might re­sult from what peo­ple say— di­rectly con­tra­dicts the stan­dards these plat­forms hold for them­selves, not to men­tion the stan­dards they de­mand the U.S. gov­ern­ment hold for them. Sec­tion 230 pro­tec­tions for me, but not for thee.

But this clearly col­lu­sive be­hav­ior sets other trou­bling prece­dents in the mar­ket. For years, pro-big Tech law­mak­ers, pun­dits and an­a­lysts have told those un­happy with the ma­jor plat­forms to “build your own” Face­book or Twit­ter. “Con­ser­va­tives are ig­nor­ing the rest of the in­ter­net,” scoffed one lib­er­tar­ian in Au­gust.

So John Matze, the founder of Par­ler, went and ac­tu­ally did it. He built his own Twit­ter. Yet those same pro-free mar­ket con­ser­va­tives and lib­er­tar­i­ans mocked him and his prod­uct. And now, when that prod­uct is un­der threat from col­lu­sive mar­ket be­hav­ior for ob­vi­ous po­lit­i­cal rea­sons, they have gone com­pletely mute.

“Build your own,” it turns out, re­ally was noth­ing more than a slo­gan with no in­tel­lec­tual com­mit­ment be­hind it. It was a se­man­tic quip that de­ployed the rhetoric of the free mar­ket to

“A free mar­ket de­pends on in­no­va­tive com­peti­tors be­ing able to win on their mer­its, and a free so­ci­ety de­pends on the open ex­change of ideas.”

pro­tect en­trenched cor­po­rate in­ter­ests.

“Build your own,” in other words, un­til it ac­tu­ally chal­lenges Face­book, Google or Twit­ter.

As a prac­ti­cal mat­ter, more­over, what is hap­pen­ing to Par­ler has ren­dered the “build your own” ar­gu­ment moot. Con­ser­va­tives can build as many al­ter­na­tives as we want, but should they grow at all pow­er­ful, the speech po­lice will come for them—and re­move ev­ery piece of in­fra­struc­ture a grow­ing com­pany needs in or­der to ac­cess a main­stream au­di­ence.

Big Tech has both mar­ket con­trol and nar­ra­tive con­trol. And as has been proven time and time again, they will form a car­tel to aggress against any com­peti­tor who dares to host a di­ver­sity of views or threat­ens their mar­ket dom­i­nance in any way.

This be­hav­ior can­not be tol­er­ated in a free mar­ket—much less in a free so­ci­ety. A free mar­ket de­pends on in­no­va­tive com­peti­tors be­ing able to win on their mer­its and a free so­ci­ety de­pends on the open ex­change of ideas.

Con­ser­va­tives can con­tinue to marginal­ize them­selves in tiny ghet­toes of the in­ter­net, but that does not re­ally rep­re­sent what Amer­i­cans un­der­stand “free speech” to be. Free speech is not just about who speaks— it is also about who hears. And when three or four com­pa­nies con­trol the vir­tual pub­lic square, their power to si­lence view­points and in­for­ma­tion in com­pletely un­ac­count­able ways is dis­tort­ing and un­rav­el­ing our so­ci­ety.

Lais­sez-faire con­ser­va­tives and lib­er­tar­i­ans—any­one who cares about lib­erty, re­ally—should be speak­ing out in force against cor­po­ra­tions col­lud­ing to si­lence com­peti­tors. Whether you dis­agree with Par­ler’s con­tent mod­er­a­tion poli­cies or not, a so­ci­ety that tol­er­ates this level of cor­po­rate con­trol over speech, in­for­ma­tion and free thought is one where self-gov­ern­ment—where the peo­ple rule—will quickly be sac­ri­ficed for some­thing re­sem­bling a cor­po­rate plu­toc­racy.

Big Tech’s con­trol has been evolv­ing slowly. But af­ter last Wed­nes­day, the flood­gates have truly been un­leashed. Ev­ery­thing con­ser­va­tives say they stand for—free thought, free speech and free mar­kets—is now un­der threat. Par­ler is just one com­pany, but it is very much a proxy for the bat­tle that is to come. And based on the si­lence from con­ser­va­tives and lib­er­tar­i­ans in D.C., we are ill-pre­pared for the fight that is now at our doorstep.

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 ??  ?? GREAT POWER AND/OR GREAT
RE­SPON­SI­BIL­ITY? Big tech com­pa­nies want to keep the free­dom to ban speech they don’t like, in­clud­ing drop­ping en­tire plat­forms like Par­ler. At the same time, they also say they shouldn’t be held li­able for any con­tent they are will­ing to per­mit.
GREAT POWER AND/OR GREAT RE­SPON­SI­BIL­ITY? Big tech com­pa­nies want to keep the free­dom to ban speech they don’t like, in­clud­ing drop­ping en­tire plat­forms like Par­ler. At the same time, they also say they shouldn’t be held li­able for any con­tent they are will­ing to per­mit.

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