In the hours after Twitter banned President Trump following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Parler — the social media company that found a loyal base in his supporters — enjoyed a brief surge in popularity. But the firm had little time to enjoy its growing reach before it went dark entirely, kicked off of its web hosting provider, Amazon Web Services, for failure to adequately moderate calls for violence.
Now, Parler has filed suit against Amazon in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, maintaining that the move breached its contract with AWS and, notably, was intended to protect Twitter from competition in violation of federal antitrust laws. The early consensus among legal scholars is that that claim is, as Columbia Law School’s Lina Khan told the Washington Examiner, “very weak.” For one thing, Parler offered no evidence that Twitter and Amazon reached an agreement to undermine it, beyond the observation that Amazon kicked Parler but not Twitter off of its cloud. (The principle that like cases should be treated alike while different cases should be treated differently strikes again.)
It’s unclear how serious Parler is about pursuing the litigation. While the company claimed in its complaint that a delay of “even one day” in ruling on its claims could “sound Parler’s death knell,” it failed to take routine procedural steps in connection with filing its lawsuit and missed a court-ordered deadline to serve Amazon with its complaint, as the New York Times reported. And some reports suggest the service will find a new home with Epik, the domain name registrar that also provides services to the social network Gab.
In an overlapping crisis for the platform, researchers working to archive Parler’s public content before it was lost or deleted have, in the process, exposed apparent data security lapses. According to Ars Technica, the company continued to host “deleted” or “private” content at publicly accessible URLs, allowing independent researchers to preserve reams of content that Parler users had previously uploaded to the site — terabytes in all.
While some outlets have described that archival effort as a “hack,” those descriptions don’t appear to be accurate. As the Reporters Committee explained in a recent friend-of-the-court brief, the federal anti-hacking statute doesn’t prohibit visiting a website just because the owner thinks no one will guess its address.
Prohibiting that kind of web scraping, an increasingly important tool for data journalism, would raise constitutional concerns under the First Amendment. And the Parler archive highlights just how important these techniques can be to data journalism and digital memory. Without them, Amazon’s decision to kick Parler off of its cloud might have produced a permanent gap in our understanding of the app — and the Capitol riots.
The Technology and Press Freedom Project at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press uses integrated advocacy — combining the law, policy analysis, and public education — to defend and promote press rights on issues at the intersection of technology and press freedom, such as reporter-source confidentiality protections, electronic surveillance law and policy, and content regulation online and in other media. TPFP is directed by Reporters Committee attorney Gabe Rottman. He works with Stanton Foundation National Security/Free Press Legal Fellow Grayson Clary and Technology and Press Freedom Project Legal Fellow Mailyn Fidler.