Jay Little - Software Obsessionist
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The Summary Execution of Parler: A New Argument For Big Tech Anti-Trust

01/11/2021 22:57:35

The world is one hell of a fucked up place right now. If you are reading this around the time I posted it, then you know exactly what I mean unless you've been living under a rock. If you really have no idea what I'm talking about, put on your big boy pants and go read some news first. In any event, as a result of recent political events (you can read my opinion on those here if you are interested, but its not required reading) the social network Parler has effectively been summarily executed by Big Tech.

Now this is not the first barrage in Big Tech's role in these events, but as of right now it is the most significant. While it may soon be upstaged as this situation is moving extremely fast, right now it is the shadow looming over all of us in tech. This particular part of the story is absolutely huge from our perspective.

Before we get into it, you need to take a moment to understand the full scope of the action that was taken against Parler. Some are characterizing it as Amazon killing Parler and while Amazon was one of the participants, if not the main one, this actually goes a bit beyond that. The reality is that Parler was effectively dropped by every vendor they worked with simultaneously. In addition they appear to have been black balled by other vendors, at least according to Parler CEO John Matze:

“We will likely be down longer than expected,” Matze reportedly wrote on his Parler profile. “This is not due to software restrictions — we have our software and everyone’s data ready to go. Rather it’s that Amazon’s, Google’s and Apple’s statements to the press about dropping our access has caused most of our other vendors to drop their support for us as well. And most people with enough servers to host us have shut their doors to us.”

Now let me make it clear. I'm not a fan of Parler at the moment. I am very much a fan of disrupting the communication networks used by Trump loyalists given the events of last week. I think the way Parler built their tech infrastructure was stupid and shortsighted. I think that desperate times call for desperate measures and I believe that in the United States we are in desperate times. However that having been said, when you really take in what has happened to Parler, its not just amazing and huge, but it's also wholly unique.

Not only is it unique, but it could also be illegal. It would appear that at least on the surface a variety of vendors all conspired to effectively summarily execute Parler and for the most part it looks like they succeeded. Amazon is probably the biggest member of the pack in this particular instance. However beyond Parler itself, its worth noting that other actions have been taken and continue to be taken against other Trump associated entities. For example the Trump campaign lost its ability to send emails to subscribers right around the same time their payment processor cut their ability to process donations. Of course most famously, Donald Trump himself lost access to his twitter account, but let's be honest: I'm fine with these last few. Especially as I strongly argued for Twitter to de-platform him back in June of last year.

I have long warned against implicitly trusting Big Tech. Big Tech is dangerous and as they grow the danger associated with them will also grow. Before I get into that, let me be clear: I appreciate that Parler going down has disrupted the ability of current and future domestic terrorists to communicate with one another and possibly organize a repeat of the Capitol Building attack on 1/6/2021. However that all having been said, I am scared shitless at the idea of Big Tech wielding this kind of power. While I know some are arguing that Parler going down is a violation of American users First Amendment rights, I strongly disagree with that argument. That's because this action, as harsh and powerful as it was, was not sanctioned by any government entity that we know of. That could of course change as we learn more.

No in fact Amazon and the other vendors took it upon themselves to do this of their own accord. As far as we know right now, they did not ask for permission nor receive a request to do this. They just did it. That's an incredible amount of unchecked power that they just put on display in the public square. While I agree that this move is helpful in a certain sense, there is going to be a hell of a lot of collateral damage. Like it or not, the majority of users on Parler were probably just using it like any other social network. There was probably some shit and probably some love and a lot of in between.

It is important to note that Parler was not alone in this. Facebook was also used by domestic terrorists to plan the events of 1/6/2021. Facebook has told us many times that they are filtering this kind of content and shutting down groups promoting this kind of activity. Facebook has either lied or is incapable of moderating the activity that takes place on their platform. So if Parler is being held accountable, why not Facebook? Likewise if Facebook can't succeed at moderating their own platform, why do we expect Parler to succeed at it? Facebook has way more resources than Parler has.

Meanwhile as a result of all of this execution, a great migration has begun. Ironically once Trump was kicked off Twitter, a lot of Twitter users began to move to Parler. Now that Parler is gone, a lot of those users are now attempting to migrate over to Gab. This has been fascinating to watch. I actually signed up for an account at Parler in the last days of the service just to get a feel for the atmosphere over there. I have since signed up for a Gab account, though that was difficult as Gab has been absolutely slammed as their traffic has increased by 750% in the last few days:

“Our traffic is up 753% in the past 24 hours. Tens of millions of visits,” said Gab in response to a question about slow loading speeds.

Gab of course is in a much better position to weather the storm if not the actual demand. They self host and appear to have very few, if any, external cloud service dependencies beyond an obvious dependency on CloudFlare for DDOS mitigation (what irony). I have been saying this for a very long time, but let me re-emphasize this for the millionth time: Building your tech stack so that it wholly depends on third party cloud services and/or proprietary software is a fools errand. You are putting all your eggs into somebody else's basket and you will learn that lesson in the most difficult way possible on the day that their interests stop coinciding with yours.

Don't believe me? Check out post I wrote back in 2019 describing how a reliance upon other people's proprietary tech was used by the Trump Administration to summarily execute Huawei. As a software developer this trend disturbs the living hell out of me. It means that short of fully embracing a combination of FOSS and on-premise hosting, we are making ourselves vulnerable in ways that we really had no way of appreciating before. Of course I won't pass up the opportunity to point out the fact that the drastic action the Trump Administration took against a company like Huawei (with very little evidence provided to make the case) is pretty similar to the actions Big Tech is taking against him and his followers now. While the irony is delicious on some level, the reality of it is quite disturbing.

I would even go as far to say that at least in the situation with Huawei and Trump, Americans at least theoretically had an opportunity to discuss it and roll it back if it appeared to be wildly off base. That didn't happen in the case of Huawei and nobody I know of can or will say whether the incoming Biden Administation plans to let the action stand or not. Nevertheless its one thing for a Government that at least theoretically operates within a system of predefined rules and oversight mechanisms to do such a thing but an entirely different thing for Big Tech to do it in a coordinated and independent fashion such as they have.

As for Parler, some of you are probably wondering whether or not they can rebuild and get back online. Perhaps in time they can. But given what has happened over the last few days and what will happen in the next few days I think it's safe to say that they will find that most of their users won't return. The reality here is that Parler weren't the only ones who bet the farm on an unaccountable cloud providers, their users did too. Early reports indicate that Parler was poorly secured and as a result of all the newfound attention over the weekend, their systems were scrapped for every bit of information possible. In addition unlike most other social media services, Parler didn't remove embedded GPS location data among other bits of information embedded in the media that the users uploaded to it. It is not 100% clear whether or not non-public information on Parler has been archived as some are saying yes and some are saying no.

So what does all that mean? Well as I understand it the groups that archived this information are looking to dump all of it on the open internet. Regardless of whether or not the users in question were involved in the actual event on 1/6/2021 that kicked all of this off, depending on what materials are part of the dump, they could be about to get doxxed in the most severe manner possible. To be clear, I would support a limited dox of users that could be shown to be directly involved in the events of 1/6/2021 and users that were actively planning for followup actions. That is a public service given the severity of what has occurred. I do not support doing this to anybody else. On the other side if the archive contains only publicly available information that was posted to Parler, then its non-objectionable.

Nevertheless, Parler's users trusted them and Parler effectively violated that trust in the worst sort of way by half assing their security. A bunch of Dudley Do-Rights are likely going to make that situation way worse by doxxing every user on the platform rather than the handful that absolutely deserve it. All of this is depressing, especially the part where I'm actively watching my country spiral the toilet. But the lesson here is clear: Implicitly trusting cloud services and/or proprietary software is the first step on the road to ruin.

Did you think we were done yet? Nope. This action by big tech, along with whatever subsequent actions they take, have not and will not go unnoticed. In fact in light of all the anti-trust investigations that are spinning up against Google, Amazon and Facebook it seems likely that they will absolutely be called to account for these actions in the very near future. I don't know about you but I find that very comforting. It's long past time that we started holding these companies accountable for their actions and ultimately if we have to break them up AT&T style to get it done, then I'm onboard with that.

On top of which other political entities are beginning to actively support other forms of action be taken. For example Devin Nunes is arguing that there needs to be racketeering charges brought against Amazon and the other Parler vendors for what was done here. I have no love for Nunes and consider him to be nothing more than a useful idiot who belongs wholly to Trump, but I wouldn't be surprised to see others take up this cause once the dust begins to settle. I can't argue that the level of coordination required with this wasn't at the very least awe inspiring. To be fair, Amazon announced this days ahead of time and Apple and Google announced their app store removals at least a day or two before that and that could've been the only signal other vendors required to act in concert with them. But if there were more direct communications facilitating such coordination that could definitely become a serious issue for Amazon, Google and Apple.

In any event, this is clearly still an evolving situation and while I was debating whether or not to post about it now, I'm glad I did. There is a lot of information to process here and I didn't realize just how big and complex this situation had gotten until I started actually writing (and editing) this post. I'll do my best to relay my subsequent commentary as it becomes relevant and while I'm not the praying type, I will say that I'm hoping everybody gets through this alright no matter what side of the fence you are on.

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