Amazon can keep conservative-friendly social network Parler offline, a federal judge in Seattle ruled Thursday.
Amazon booted Parler from its cloud-computing servers Jan. 11 due to what the Seattle tech giant said was an increase in violent content on the social network, which has a primarily right-wing user base. Parler immediately sued to restore its access to Amazon Web Services (AWS), the arm of the company that offers the digital infrastructure powering much of online activity.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein said that forcing Amazon to get Parler back online goes against the public interest, given “the kind of abusive, violent content at issue in this case, particularly in light of the recent riots at the U.S. Capitol.”
“That event was a tragic reminder that inflammatory rhetoric can — more swiftly and easily than many of us would have hoped — turn a lawful protest into a violent insurrection,” she wrote. “The Court rejects any suggestion that the public interest favors requiring AWS to host the incendiary speech that the record shows some of Parler’s users have engaged in.”
Amazon welcomed the judge’s ruling. In a statement, the company issued a rejoinder to critics who have said Amazon infringed on Parler’s First Amendment rights when it suspended Parler’s account.
“This was not a case about free speech,” the statement said. “It was about a customer that consistently violated our terms of service by allowing content to be published on their website that actively encouraged violence (and without an effective plan to moderate it).”
Rothstein used similar language in her ruling.
“First Amendment rights,” she wrote, “exist only against a governmental entity, and not against a private company like AWS.”
Parler is confident it will prevail in the case, said Parler investor Jeffrey Wernick in a statement issued on the company’s behalf.
“We also remind everyone that this litigation is still in its early stages and that the resolution of this case will have broad implications for our pluralistic society,” Wernick said. He declined to respond to questions about Parler’s next steps in the case.
In a hearing in the case last week, Amazon’s attorney cautioned against moving quickly to restore Parler’s cloud-services account, saying the social network was unable and unwilling to moderate violent content. After the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Parler experienced such a spike in posting activity that it was unable to moderate content for seven hours, resulting in a backlog of 26,000 reports of abusive content, Amazon said in legal filings.
Parler has said it relies largely on a team of volunteer “jurors” to review potentially harmful content after it has been posted, a system that Amazon says is inadequate.
“There is no reason to think (Parler) could develop an effective moderation plan,” Amazon attorney Ambika Doran of Davis Wright Tremaine said at the hearing. “They had been unwilling to and unable to.”
Parler had said Amazon ignored that the social network was on the brink of deploying technology powered by artificial intelligence to screen posts for potentially harmful content.
Rothstein swatted that reasoning aside in her ruling Thursday. Amazon, she wrote, “has convincingly argued that forcing it to host Parler’s users’ violent content would interfere with AWS’s ability to prevent its services from being used to promote — and, as the events of January 6, 2021 have demonstrated, even cause — violence.”
Parler’s claims that Amazon had colluded with Twitter to keep Parler offline, and that Amazon had violated the terms of its contract by suspending Parler’s account, additionally hold little water, Rothstein wrote.
Parler has said it will likely be unable to reactivate its website, which it bills as an unmoderated alternative to Twitter, if the AWS ban continues because other service providers have refused to work with Parler after the mayhem at the Capitol.
The social network has taken some steps, though, to reboot its service. Last week, Parler transferred its domain name, the address used to locate a particular website, to Sammamish-based registrar Epik. On Monday, the website came back online — though without any functionality. Parler’s new IP address, a numeric designation that identifies the site’s location on the internet, indicates the site is hosted by Russian tech company DDoS-Guard, researchers said.
The new Parler page contains a mock-up of its former social media site with messages from executives, including a reflection on extremism in the cause of righteousness taken from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
“Might this be the year that all of us, regardless of political belief, become extremists for freedom of expression and privacy?” wrote Parler chief policy officer Amy Peikoff.
Media outlets reported that the Jan. 6 insurrection appeared to have been organized in part on Parler, Gab and other message boards that have attracted right-wing users, and that Parler users penetrated deep into the Capitol. On Sunday, ProPublica published a database of 500 videos posted on Parler taken by people who were among the mob at the Capitol.
Parler has said those reports are based on misleading evidence, and that many Capitol rioters also used Facebook and Twitter. In court filings last week, Parler had contended that “none of the arrested participants in that unconscionable attack … even had a Parler account, much less used it to ‘incite, organize or coordinate’ the attack.”
On Tuesday, however, federal agents arrested members of an Ohio far-right militia who had admitted in media interviews that they participated in the Capitol riot. Charging documents show militia members narrated their breach of the Capitol building in a series of Parler posts.
Parler is also facing stepped-up scrutiny from federal lawmakers. On Thursday, the chairperson of the House Oversight and Reform Committee asked the FBI to investigate Parler’s role in the Jan. 6 Capitol siege, and the possibility that its new business relationship with DDoS-Guard may entangle the site with Russian state intelligence agencies.