Parler isn't "free speech", according to Tim Cook.


Parler is back as of yesterday. The controversial app found a new host in DDos-Guard, which is controlled by two Russian men and provides services including protection from distributed denial of service attacks. They have been known to host various sites that were used by extremists and conspiracy theorists to spread their theories.

It is a bit unclear how Parler is going to put itself in a good light after having been associated with such a hosting service. That in a way supports the decision of Amazon, Google and Apple to remove the app from their hosting and app services.

Recently Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, raised a precise point in favor of banning Parler from their app store: “we don't consider it free speech”. While giving an interview aired on “Fox News Sunday” on 17th January, Tim Cook claimed that Apple “looked at the incitement to violence that was on there and… we don’t consider that free speech.”

This is an interesting point, and the core of what's at stake with the recent Trump's banning and now Parler's from the most popular social media and app stores. What is exactly "free speech" and till where it may be considered so, even if it breaks the terms and conditions that every user, Trump included, had to sign when creating an account on Twitter or Facebook and similar.

Photo by Hrayr Movsisyan on Unsplash

Parler is not Trump, and Trump is not Parler

The two cases aren't the same. One of the accusations of Tim Cook against Parler is that it failed to moderate its own platform, letting hate speech and similar messages go unchecked. As this is against Parler's own terms and conditions, Apple found justified to suspend the app from their proprietary store, until they get their act together.

Which is probably not happening now as they simply moved to a new host in Russia, where we can expect a much more laissez-faire attitude on the content being published through the service. Which is a pity, as it would have been very interesting to see if Parler had been able to step up their efforts in controlling the hateful messages present on their platform what Apple, among the others, would have done.

The first important point I want to make is that there's a fundamental difference between the banning of Trump and the banning of Parler. One is a single user, with a single account, sending messages that are arguably his own, personal and political, views. Nobody is forcing Trump to write what he was writing before he got banned. Until proven otherwise, that is.

On the contrary, Parler is a platform. There are thousands of users, excluding the unavoidable bots, that daily posted their views. Parler, as Facebook or Twitter, aren't directly responsible for what their users post and write. Until the laws change, they are only responsible insofar as they fail to moderate content like piracy, paedopornography, racism, hate speech and so on. According to their own terms and conditions, plus what the laws say.

Which is what actually happened with Parler. It failed to control its own platform, and that was the excuse Apple used to ban it. I say "excuse" because we all know that a lot of similar content is present on Facebook and Twitter to this very day, mostly unchecked.

So why did Parler get banned and not these other two? Hard to say as we lack internal data to know how many accounts were banned or suspended on either Parler or Twitter, just to make a comparison. Yet if we follow Tim Cook's declarations, Parler failed more than Facebook or Twitter, about which we can argue they are at least trying more.

With Trump, it is easy to pinpoint a specific tweet or post and say that it violated the rules of the platform. We can discuss forever if it was just to ban him because of that message or that other one, and if it wouldn't be correct to ban other politicians as well. My opinion is that politicians should abide by the same very rules that any other users are subject to: thus, both Twitter and Facebook should ban more, not less, of them.

But I'm digressing. I'm not here to defend the suspension of Trump. I find it largely justified, only the timing is more than suspect and the lack of more banning.

Rules are rules, until a better legislation comes

Therefore, comparing Trump's case to Parler's is misguided. They are wholly different. In the case of the current POTUS, it is a matter of whether he violated the rules of the platform and how these rules are applied: fairly or not, with the right effort of the service in moderating the content or in a questionable closing of an eye somewhere and banning somewhere else. And so on.

The case with Parler is justifiable as well if the platform didn't do much in controlling the content that was shared through the service. At least, if it showed, repeatedly, much less interest than other social media and apps to hinder the publications of extremists, conspiracy theories and downright unlawful content.

But I would retort on Tim Cook that saying that "we don't consider that free speech" is a slippery path that we shouldn't take. First, because Parler isn't a user but a platform. Banning the whole of it means surely banning thousands of racists, extremists, hateful commentaries and in general a lot of content that would be passable by law in many states, not just within the US. Plus, it surely violated quite a few rules of Parler's as well.

But, was all content on Parler like that? All of it? Every single user in that service was bannable elsewhere? I don't buy into this.

This is the danger of following the "rules" to the letter. It allows a large company like Apple to ban a whole platform thanks to a part, even if the large majority, of it, without considering the right to free speech of those users who didn't violate any rule, of Parler or of any other social media out there. By banning a platform instead of accusing a single user, like in the case of Trump, CEOs like Cook are taking into their hands what should be considered "free speech" and what should be considered "hate speech".

Rules are fine. But whose rules? Apple's? Google's? Or shouldn't be the state's law to decide whether a service is to be considered a hate speech platform in its entirety or not? Laws we can change by voting different representatives or by contacting the current ones. We can't change the director's board of Apple or Facebook or Twitter. Or Parler, yes, that included. We are leaving them to decide what is "good" and what is "not good" for us, without the burden of the proof, like in the case of Trump. That is quite a slippery path indeed, for all of us.

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