The conservative-friendly social network Parler was booted off the internet Monday over ties to last week’s siege on the U.S. Capitol, but not before digital activists made off with an archive of its posts, including any that might have helped organize or document the riot.
Amazon kicked Parler off its web-hosting service, and the social media app promptly sued to get back online, telling a federal judge that the tech giant had breached its contract and abused its market power.
It was a roller coaster of activity for Parler, a 2-year-old magnet for the far right that welcomed a surge of new users. It became the No. 1 free app on iPhones late last week after Facebook, Twitter and other mainstream social media platforms silenced President Donald Trump’s accounts over comments that seemed to incite Wednesday’s violent insurrection.
The wave of Trump followers flocking to the service was short-lived. Google yanked Parler’s smartphone app from its app store Friday for allowing postings that seek "to incite ongoing violence in the U.S."
Apple followed suit on Saturday after giving Parler a day to address complaints it was being used to "plan and facilitate yet further illegal and dangerous activities." But the death knell came from Amazon Web Services, the leading provider of cloud computing infrastructure, which informed Parler it would need to look for a new web-hosting service after Sunday.
Parler CEO John Matze decried the punishments as "a coordinated attack by the tech giants to kill competition in the marketplace."
Parler’s lawsuit in a Seattle-based federal court makes the argument that Amazon violated antitrust laws to harm Parler and help Twitter, which also uses Amazon’s cloud services. It also alleges Amazon breached its contract by not giving 30 days of notice before terminating Parler’s account. Amazon did not return requests for comment about the dispute Monday.
Parler attorney David Groesbeck said by email Monday that the company is awaiting a hearing on the lawsuit. But it was admonished later in the day by Judge Barbara Rothstein of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, who wrote that Parler had failed to properly serve court papers to Amazon and ordered it to do so.
Matze has signaled there is little chance of getting Parler back online anytime soon after "every vendor, from text message services, to e-mail providers, to our lawyers all ditched us too on the same day," he told Fox New Channel’s "Sunday Morning Futures."
In a Monday interview with Fox Business, he said the company "may even have to go as far as buying and building our own data centers and buying up our own servers."
Trump may also launch his own platform. But that will not happen overnight, and free speech experts anticipate growing pressure on all social media platforms to curb incendiary speech as Americans take stock of Wednesday’s violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol by a Trump-incited mob.
Organizers of pro-Trump forces are already regrouping in other forums, such as the conservative-friendly social media site Gab, as new actions are planned ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.
"Gab and Parler are like hastily put together and less easy-to-use versions of Twitter and Facebook," said Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which has investigated the online organizing leading up to the Capitol assault. "They’ve got notoriety as ultimate free speech sites where you can say literally whatever you want even if it’s unlawful or egregious."
Meanwhile, a group of digital "hactivists" salvaged much of what happened on Parler before it went offline and said they plan to put it into a public archive. One described the operation on Twitter as "a bunch of people running into a burning building trying to grab as many things as we can."
The effort to scrape Parler’s website to download and archive posts, including image files that can be tied to geographic locations, has instilled some fear in Parler users. But law enforcement might have been able to access the data anyway, and experts said the archive does not include information that was not publicly accessible. The cache of data is not yet easily readable by non-experts.
"If this wasn’t done, we would only have fragments and scraps of the information that was on Parler before the takedown," said Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist at McGill University who has studied hacker movements. "It’s important because these forums are increasingly where people come together to organize themselves. You learn about motivations, ideological tactics."
Coleman said Trump loyalists are likely to find other ways to communicate, such as encrypted messaging apps or old-fashioned email lists, but only if they already knew where to find like-minded groups.
Cutting off Parler removes a key recruitment tool for various groups that are connected by Trump’s misinformation about the presidential election, Brookie said.
"Parler has been particularly good at bringing more audience into this collective delusion," he said.