(Bloomberg)—The decision by Amazon.com Inc.’s cloud unit to pull the plug on social-media service Parler highlighted the company’s often-overlooked role powering much of the internet. Amazon is No. 1 in the 2020 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000.
Parler went offline late Sunday after Amazon Web Services suspended its account, a potentially crippling blow for the site favored by right-wing extremists, some of whom advocated violence ahead of last week’s riot at the U.S. Capitol. In a letter to Parler seen by Bloomberg, Amazon said the company was unable to effectively keep calls for violence off its platform. The site on Monday sued Amazon, seeking to reverse the action and get back online.
Social media companies and smartphone platforms are used to policing content on their sites. After disinformation campaigns marred the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. hired thousands of content moderators, and in some cases sought the help of outside advisers, to develop policies and sort through issues including political falsehoods and hate speech.
But Amazon’s move to cut off Parler is a reminder that the company wields huge influence over what is seen on the internet. It’s a power the Seattle company rarely uses. AWS, the largest provider of on-demand software services and cloud computing power, provides the digital backbone for millions of customers, from Netflix Inc. to U.S. government agencies, and it doesn’t have a lengthy track record of policing content that its customers help create.
That’s partly because of the business model—AWS builds tools for software developers, not a digital public square. Close observers of the company say AWS seems reluctant to take action against customers over political or social debates or questions of taste, as part of an effort to serve as a neutral host for all who want to buy its services. Microsoft Corp. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google are Amazon’s biggest competitors in the cloud market.
In cases like evidence of child pornography, response can be swift and nearly automatic, according to someone familiar with the company’s actions with previous controversial customers. Once employees point out a more complicated issue, legal and security teams quickly become involved, and the decision to cut off customers like Parler always involves AWS CEO Andy Jassy, the person said.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s ad hoc, but it doesn’t happen very often,” the person said. “The line really becomes, Is there something in the terms of service they have broken, and, depending on the level of egregiousness, is it something they can pull down or stop doing? Or is it systematic?”
Also on Monday, Amazon began removing hats, T-shirts, books and other merchandise promoting the conspiracy theory QAnon from the company’s ecommerce site. An Amazon spokeswoman said the items violate the company’s policy, and added that it may take a few days to get them off the site. The company may suspend marketplace merchants who continue to post the products, she said. The FBI has labeled QAnon, which believes a cabal of pedophiles runs the government, a domestic terrorism threat.
Amazon’s acceptable use policy includes broad prohibitions against illegal or harmful content, and reserves the right to disable customers’ use of AWS services.
The cloud unit primarily relies on customers and the public to report abuse of its services. It maintains a public email address for such issues and the sales, social media and security teams have wide leeway to flag reports of illegal or inappropriate content among AWS users.
“Amazon is not in the business of policing its customers, it doesn’t want to be in the business of policing its customers,” said Corey Quinn, who advises businesses that use Amazon’s cloud at the Duckbill Group, a consulting firm. AWS has previously cut off WikiLeaks and Gab, another social networking site popular with the far right, and it encouraged customers to drop support for 8chan, the online billboard and hub for conspiracy theorists.
When Amazon suspends a customer, it makes its case for a violation using public-facing content, including screen shots, rather than proprietary data stored on AWS servers. In the case of Parler, that meant flagging 98 instances of posts that clearly encouraged violence in recent weeks, according to the letter AWS sent the company on Jan. 9.
“Recently, we’ve seen a steady increase in this violent content on your website, all of which violates our terms,” said the letter, which was signed by AWS’s Trust & Safety Team. “It’s clear that Parler does not have an effective process to comply with the AWS terms of service.”
Parler, which has said its site was not to blame for last week’s violence, called Amazon’s action “motivated by political animus.”
“Without AWS, Parler is finished as it has no way to get online,” the social media company said in its complaint.
AWS provides services to customers “across the political spectrum, and we respect Parler’s right to determine for itself what content it will allow,” Amazon said in a statement. “It is clear that there is significant content on Parler that encourages and incites violence against others, and that Parler is unable or unwilling to promptly identify and remove this content, which is a violation of our terms of service.”
Parler sues Amazon over removal from servers
The self-described “microblogging alternative and competitor to Twitter” was offline early Monday morning after Amazon’s cloud services division stopped providing the service. Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google had withdrawn Parler from their app stores over the weekend.
Amazon’s action “is the equivalent of pulling the plug on a hospital patient on life support,” Parler said in a lawsuit filed Monday in federal court in Seattle, seeking an order forcing Amazon Web Services to maintain its account. AWS “will kill Parler’s business—at the very time it is set to skyrocket,” according to the suit.
Amazon said there was no merit to the claims.
“AWS provides technology and services to customers across the political spectrum, and we respect Parler’s right to determine for itself what content it will allow,” the company said in an emailed statement. “It is clear that there is significant content on Parler that encourages and incites violence against others, and that Parler is unable or unwilling to promptly identify and remove this content, which is a violation of our terms of service.”
The lawsuit comes amid longstanding battles between President Donald Trump and social media platforms like Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc. that have thrived on his populist messages but have also been severely criticized for enabling him. Many Trump supporters have moved to Parler to avoid what they see as censorship by Twitter.
In the suit, Parler alleges an antitrust infraction.
“Less than a month ago, AWS and Parler’s competitor, Twitter, entered into a multi-year deal,” according to the suit. “Late Friday evening, Twitter banned President Trump from using its platform, thereby driving enormous numbers of its users to Parler. Twenty-four hours later, AWS announced it would indefinitely suspend Parler’s account.”
AWS said in its statement it made its concerns over content inciting violence known to Parler for several weeks. “During that time we saw a significant increase in this type of dangerous content, not a decrease, which led to our suspension of their services Sunday evening,” the company said.
Parler claims that by suspending its account, AWS “will remove from the market a surging player, severely restraining commerce in the microblogging services market.”
Alan Sykes, a professor at Stanford Law School, said if it turns out that Twitter prevailed on Amazon to ban Parler, the microblogger’s complaint could amount to a legitimate antitrust claim.
Amazon’s decision to remove Parler for its potential to foment violence “is a non-anticompetitive, legitimate reason to take someone off the web service,” Sykes said. “Whoever hears the case will have to decide whether the plaintiffs made out a plausible case of conspiracy between Amazon and Twitter.”
“This concern for violence might justify taking Parler off for a while, but it’s not clear that it could justify a permanent ban,” Sykes added. After Trump leaves office and the dust settles, “if Amazon continues the ban indefinitely, that would strengthen the inference of a conspiracy.”
Parler is asking U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein to act immediately and issue a temporary order to keep the site going while the litigation plays out. Rothstein, who was appointed by President Jimmy Carter, set deadlines for the two sides to submit briefs Tuesday and Wednesday.
Parler also claims that AWS broke its contract, which it says requires more notice of termination, and illegally interfered in its relationship with its customers. In addition, Parler accuses AWS of “political animus,” saying the company took no action against Twitter while the rioters’ chant phrase “Hang Mike Pence” was a top-trending tweet.
In the week after Election Day, Nov. 3, Parler became the top free app in Apple’s iOS App Store, up from No. 1,023 just a week earlier, according to the suit. It said installs increased 355% after Twitter said it would permanently ban Trump.
AWS is by far the largest cloud-computing provider, and its on-demand software services are the backbone for many of the most popular internet services. Parler has ”no other options” to be on the web, it said.
The case is Parler LLC v. Amazon Web Services Inc., 21-cv-00031, U.S. District Court, Western District of Washington.