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AWS banning of Parler exposes the precariousness of the public cloud

Following activist pressure from its own employees, Amazon Web Services kicked social network Parler off its servers today.

Following last week’s riot in Washington DC and the subsequent banning of US President Trump from nearly all social media, one of those that had yet to act against him was Parler. The service positions itself as a less censorious alternative to Twitter and has thus become a refuge for people banned from better known social media platforms. Some AWS employees were keen for their company to do its bit to prevent the use of Parler by Trump or anyone else.

The above tweet makes reference to a Buzzfeed story breaking the news. AWS has yet to make a public announcement on the matter, but we can confirm that the letter from AWS to Parler reproduced in the story is authentic. The reasons given for taking the drastic step of entirely disconnecting the Parler service and website should give all AWS customers and any fans of a free and open internet pause for thought.

“Recently, we’ve seen a steady increase in this violent content on your website, all of which violates our terms,” wrote the faceless AWS Trust & Safety Team. Of course violent content is bad but we understand Parler already makes that clear in its terms of service. Of course we can’t confirm today that because Parler was apparently naïve enough to host those on AWS servers too.

The real significance of this statement, however, lies in the questions it poses about application and enforcement of AWS terms. The internet is, of course, replete with violent sentiment. If you doubt that, just try expressing an opinion that runs contrary to the prevailing narrative on nearly anything on social media and see what kind of response you get. Yet we’re not aware of AWS inflicting such severe punishment on any other equivalent services.

The selective enforcement of terms of service is endemic to the tech and financial services sector these days, as corporations become increasingly politicised and inclined to cower before the social media mob. While positioned as absolute, their enforcement seems to depend more on activist pressure than anything else. For example, given Trump’s ban for allegedly inciting violence, why does this tweet remain on Twitter?

Here’s how AWS concluded its letter to Parler: “Because Parler cannot comply with our terms of service and poses a very real risk to public safety, we plan to suspend Parler’s account effective Sunday, January 10th, at 11:59PM PST. We will ensure that all of your data is preserved for you to migrate to your own servers, and will work with you as best as we can to help your migration.”

Sounds more like a permanent ban than a suspension, doesn’t it? We’re not aware of any appeals process or any path to redemption for Parler, it has been unilaterally cut adrift on the whim of the AWS Trust & Safety Team. By complete coincidence Parler has also been ditched by Google, Apple and countless other technology providers, which could be viewed as a coordinated attempt to drive Parler out of business if you were feeling uncharitable.

Those who approve of AWS’s action will presumably fall back on the old ‘it’s their company, they can do what they want’, argument that is routinely used to dismiss complaints about social media censorship. It’s true, they can, but if it’s Parler today, who might it be tomorrow? AWS customers, you have been warned, don’t cross the AWS Trust & Safety Team or it will cut you off from your own technology infrastructure.

Here’s Parler Chief Policy Officer Amy Peikoff discussing the potential ban late last week.


22 comments

  1. Avatar Marcio 11/01/2021 @ 2:59 pm

    I believe that the same way companies and private people sponsor/donate money for parties/companies/people, when they do not recognise the speech, the negative impact it has on people and society overall they are free to take that position. Someone who know what Parler is and the type of yes uncensored but violent and decriminatory speech that happens there, is not surprised with such actions.
    Actually, such companies like Twitter, Amazon, Apple are showing more Accountability than politicians in general, as well as main stream medial (including Fox News).

  2. Avatar Alejandro 11/01/2021 @ 3:30 pm

    I think this is the first exposure of a shift in power that is happening since the 70’s.
    Big corporations currently have more power than many countries (eventually some have military power too).
    In the interest of money, they are starting to use such powers to force their views and shape the market to their interests.
    I wonder if and how would this power be used to eliminate competition like company X may buy services to swap out company Y. As if in this article, the origin of the ban could have been a Parlor’s competitor paying a sum to make Parlor out of business.

  3. Avatar Sam 11/01/2021 @ 3:32 pm

    Thank you for this piece. It is increasingly obvious that the major tech players are essentially functioning as media outlets / publishers via their use of selective censorship. The capitol riots/protests were contemptable; the Portland Oregon riots/protests were contemptable; as is the call to eradicate Israel cited in the article. It is clear that all contemptable events and contemptable uses of tech platforms do not have equal – or equally constrained – access to voice their contemptable opinions. What is more worrisome to me is that there doesn’t seem to be an agreed moral framework for determining what is contemptable and the discussion quickly devolves into one “side” hating on the another. (note even the above comment that singles out a right-wing outlet while ignoring left-wing outlets). This is the key issue of our time.

  4. Avatar Andy Tiller 11/01/2021 @ 3:43 pm

    Here in the West, where we value freedom of speech, we frown on government censorship of the Internet (see for example our disapproval of the Great Firewall of China). So instead we push responsibility to the tech firms to prevent incitement of violence the spread of dangerous misinformation such as Covid conspiracy theories. In that case, isn’t it reasonable for AWS employees to lobby their company to remove content? If we want the tech firms to take responsibility (which I think we mostly do, in the West), then we can’t complain if they make their own decisions (as long as they act within the law). If not, what’s the alternative? (a) allow dangerous misinformation to spread, or (b) the government steps in with heavy regulation. Neither option is very attractive, but honestly in this climate I’d rather have (b) than (a).

  5. Avatar Phil Harvey 11/01/2021 @ 6:30 pm

    re: “Yet we’re not aware of AWS inflicting such severe punishment on any other equivalent services.”

    AWS, Cloudflare and several others dropped 8Chan (community site) back in Aug. 2019.

    AWS, Microsoft, Google, Paypal, Stripe, and others stopped service to Gab (social network) at various times in 2018. (It re-emerged on its own servers in September).

    Anyway, there are probably others but it looks like AWS has done this before to similar social media/community platforms that repeatedly ran afoul of its terms of service.

    • Avatar Nobody 12/01/2021 @ 1:24 am

      Everybody was leaving twitter and joining Parker, they did not like that

    • Scott Bicheno Scott Bicheno 12/01/2021 @ 9:19 am

      But not Twitter.

  6. Avatar Phil Harvey 11/01/2021 @ 8:52 pm

    re: “but if it’s Parler today, who might it be tomorrow?”

    The answer appears to be companies that repeatedly violate the AWS ToS and don’t have a mechanism to curb future violations.

    • Scott Bicheno Scott Bicheno 12/01/2021 @ 9:11 am

      Exactly

  7. Avatar Anon Person 11/01/2021 @ 10:49 pm

    Load of trash click bait. AWS and many other providers like Stripe and Twitter have all removed accounts related to the mess that happened this week. This isn’t dangerous censorship of peaceful protesters, this is removing a violent and dangerous group from being able to infect the minds of others.

    Would you say the same if AWS removed a terrorist organisations website? No?

    • Scott Bicheno Scott Bicheno 12/01/2021 @ 9:12 am

      Straw man

  8. Avatar Hamish Morgan 11/01/2021 @ 11:14 pm

    Boycott AMAZON products. 99% of what it sells online is just cheap junk, made by slave labour in countries that have little or no rights for workers.Having wasted money buying inferior products from their website I have learnt my lesson to never to buy another product from AMAZON

  9. Avatar Nobody 12/01/2021 @ 1:23 am

    It is very clear these big companies are acting based upon their political agenda, there were no tweets from trump inciting violence, and their are many a bad actors not banned on twitter. Between donating money illegally and censoring stuff they don’t like, somebody needs to pull the plug on them. They are now more powerful than governments and they are acting together makes them things even worse.

  10. Avatar Kelly 12/01/2021 @ 5:22 am

    Trump administration is shit, but banning from AWS is another. The internet is free and it should be forever. Tons of video in youtube promote the use guns, martial arts, etc. why didn’t it got ban? As an adult, you will be responsible for your act.

    • Avatar Andy Tiller 12/01/2021 @ 11:29 am

      That would be OK if people are generally adult, but unfortunately it seems that an awful lot of people are gullible and believe conspiracy theories and misinformation they read online. A completely free and unregulated Internet is not going to help society. Everything is a balance – we need tech firm accountability with some government regulation.

  11. Avatar Jim Strunk 12/01/2021 @ 6:15 pm

    This is “pixelnacht” just like Kristallnacht was in Nazi German. Hang on to your Bill of Rights …. this is step one. Wait til the new FCC is in place.

  12. Avatar G Orwell 12/01/2021 @ 9:04 pm

    It takes me about a minute to find actual calls to violence against white people on twitter and FB. This is craziness.

  13. Avatar Aj 13/01/2021 @ 12:36 am

    But yet we have pedophilia beastiality on the internet. Not to mention 150% worse things that happen on the internet. But let’s go out of our way to ban someone on social media. Using Trump as a steppingstone EVERY politician is responsible. Time these ignorant people take responsibility, instead of push blame. AMERICA WE STAND DIVIDED!

    • Avatar Andy Tiller 13/01/2021 @ 10:58 am

      Just because you can’t get rid of it all doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother doing anything. Why not start with the most influential spreaders of dangerous misinformation and incitement to violence (eg the ex-POTUS)?

      • Avatar Free Speech 13/01/2021 @ 2:30 pm

        The easiest way to curb spreading of dangerous information is to have open platforms for dialog. You cannot control the minds of people. They will always find an outlet to express themselves. There will not be any voices of reason at those alternative outlets and that is what is dangerous. Isn’t it nice that we have a platform to discuss this and haven’t been kicked off because our opinions are different from yours?

        The next industry to come along will be technologies for anti censorship – e-commerce, blogging, social media, crowdfunding and everything else. Half the country is sick of the censorship.

        • Avatar Scion 14/01/2021 @ 8:06 am

          Totally agree.

          Fight hate speech with more speech.
          Fight misinformation with more information.

          To censor is to admit defeat, and will ultimately lead to hate and misinformation winning in the end.

  14. Avatar Scion 14/01/2021 @ 8:05 am

    Great post!
    I own a company in the adult content industry (we make only illustrated content) and those of us in this industry have been victims of cloud ToS’s for many years and could see this coming from miles away.
    I even wrote a blog post about the problems caused by Atlassian’s shift to a ‘cloud first’ business model and their server products: https://studiowhy.net/wiki/display/BLOG/2020/10/26/The+Tyranny+of+the+ToS

    I think one of the biggest issues I have is how many companies don’t seem to realize that cloud solutions, in their current iteration, are inherently violations of Zero Trust security principles. These companies which laud their own Zero Trust practices have no problem asking their users to forgo those principles in order to ‘trust’ them with their data.

    Another user made the point that in some ways these companies have more influence than some small nations, which I think is absolutely true. If a country (foolishly) decides to host critical government infrastructure on the cloud of one of these organizations, then that organization is granted incredible leverage. Under current regulations, almost all of these organizations retain the right to delete your data or terminate service based on their own subjective qualifications.

    This relationship, in essence, would give that company (and by proxy the country the company resides in) unprecedented leverage over that country’s operations.

    One possible solution could be equal-enforcement or fair-access regulation, as is being proposed with banks by the Comptroller of the Currency in the US right now: https://www.occ.treas.gov/news-issuances/news-releases/2020/nr-occ-2020-156.html

    Another solution would be for a company to find a way to develop and sell a truly private or decentralized cloud. How they would accomplish this I have no idea.

    It is absolutely correct that the cloud is the future but, in its current iteration, it is still unfit to power the vital yet ‘ugly’ parts of society.

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