Google has removed the Parler app from its Play Store due to breaches of its content moderation and enforcement policies. Parler positions itself as “the world’s premier free speech platform” and has become popular among right-wing and far-right users. It has come under increased scrutiny since the riots at the Capitol due to the emergence of posts from beforehand apparently planning the unrest and subsequent posts seemingly planning future unrest.
Parler’s pitch — and unique selling point — is that it allows users to “Speak freely and express yourself openly, without fear of being ‘deplatformed’ for your views.” This is in part the ideological basis for the platform, but also a niche that makes it attractive for those whose views or posts might fall foul of the content policies in place at the likes of Twitter and Facebook. As other social media platforms attempted to tackle the issue of misinformation in the run-up to, during, and after the US presidential election, some users and groups who had been banned elsewhere due to posts deemed unacceptable were able to find a new home on Parler.
However, both Android and iOS apps must adhere to policies set by Google and Apple to be listed in their respective app stores. In light of recent activity on the platform, Google has decided that Parler was not making adequate efforts to do so. Speaking to Axios, a spokesperson reportedly said, “In order to protect user safety on Google Play, our longstanding policies require that apps displaying user-generated content have moderation policies and enforcement that removes egregious content like posts that incite violence.” The spokesperson noted that Parler had been reminded of the policies in recent months and that, while there could be some debate about content policies and that there was a recognition that it was not always possible to immediately remove all contravening content, it was felt that the app’s listing should be suspended until the issues were addressed “in light of this ongoing and urgent public safety threat.” Apple has threatened to remove Parler from its App Store too unless an adequate moderation plan is implemented.
Unsurprisingly, founder and CEO of Parler John Matze is not impressed with either Google or Apple, pointing out that violence is against its rules and arguing that any such censuring “is an attack on our basic civil liberties and right to free speech.” Indeed, it may well be the case that Google and Apple are overreaching and that “Most people on Parler are non-violent people who want to share their opinions, food pics and more.”
However, it is not unreasonable for Google and Apple to ask for assurances that their platforms won’t be used for, say, inciting violence. It’s also understandable that they might be particularly cautious at the moment given the rioting and — by some at least — apparent attempted coup at the Capitol. While there is evidence of alarming activity on Parler in recent days, it is by no means the only platform where this is happening. Perhaps its biggest problem is that it has, rightly or wrongly, developed a reputation as a safe haven for far-right extremist discussion.
Parler has two main options going forward. It can fall in line with Google and Apple’s moderation requirements while giving as much leeway as possible for free speech to its users and continue to be listed on the app stores. Alternatively, it could go it alone, offering its service without access via Android and Google apps — or at least not ones that can be downloaded from the app stores. This, of course, could dramatically damage its uptake.
The wider context here is, of course, about free speech. While it is enshrined in the US Constitution that no laws will prohibit people from saying what they want, that doesn’t mean others have to accommodate or provide a mouthpiece for their views. This, essentially, is Google and Apple’s stance.
More: How Facebook, Google, Twitter, & Microsoft Are Fighting Election Disinformation Together
Sources: Axios, Buzzfeed, Parler 1, 2, 3, Twitter/@slpng_giants