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Private Censorship, Parler, and the Stack

Last week, following riots that saw supporters of President Trump breach and sack parts of the Capitol building, Facebook and Twitter made the decision to give the president the boot. That was notable enough, given that both companies had previously treated the president, like other political leaders, as largely exempt from content moderation rules. Many of the president’s followers responded by moving to Parler. This week, the response has taken a new turn. Infrastructure companies much closer to the bottom of the technical “stack” including Amazon Web Services (AWS), and Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS app storesdecided to cut off service not just to an individual but to an entire platform. Parler has so far struggled to return online, partly through errors of its own making, but also because the lower down the technical stack, the harder it is to find alternatives, or re-implement what capabilities the Internet has taken for granted.

Whatever you think of Parler, these decisions should give you pause. Private companies have strong legal rights under U.S. law to refuse to host or support speech they don’t like. But that refusal carries different risks when a group of companies comes together to ensure that certain speech or speakers are effectively taken offline altogether.

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