Cutting off Parler reveals Amazon's Net clout

NEW YORK • The decision by Amazon.com's cloud unit to pull the plug on social media service Parler highlighted the e-commerce giant's often-overlooked role in powering much of the Internet.

Parler went offline late on Sunday after Amazon Web Services (AWS)suspended its account, a potentially crippling blow for the site favoured by right-wing extremists, some of whom advocated violence ahead of last week's riot at the US Capitol.

In a letter to Parler seen by Bloomberg, Amazon said the company was unable to effectively keep calls for violence off its platform. The site on Monday sued Amazon, seeking to reverse the action and get back online.

Social media companies and smartphone platforms are used to policing content on their sites. After disinformation campaigns marred the 2016 US presidential election, Facebook and Twitter hired thousands of content moderators, and in some cases sought the help of outside advisers, to develop policies and sort through issues, including political falsehoods and hate speech.

But Amazon's move to cut off Parler is a reminder that the company wields huge influence over what is seen on the Internet. It is a power the Seattle company rarely uses. AWS, the largest provider of on-demand software services and cloud computing power, provides the digital backbone for millions of customers, from Netflix to US government agencies, and it does not have a lengthy track record of policing content that its customers help create.

That is partly because of the business model - AWS builds tools for software developers, not a digital public square. Close observers of the company say AWS seems reluctant to take action against customers over political or social debates or questions of taste, as part of an effort to serve as a neutral host for all who want to buy its services. Microsoft and Alphabet's Google are Amazon's biggest competitors in the cloud market.

Also on Monday, Amazon began removing hats, T-shirts, books and other merchandise promoting the conspiracy theory QAnon from the company's e-commerce site.

An Amazon spokesman said the items violate the company's policy, and added that it may take a few days to get them off the site. The company may suspend marketplace merchants who continue to post the products, she said. The FBI has labelled QAnon - which believes a cabal of paedophiles runs the government - a domestic terrorism threat.

Amazon's cloud unit primarily relies on customers and the public to report abuse of its services. It maintains a public e-mail address for such issues and the sales, social media and security teams have wide leeway to flag reports of illegal or inappropriate content among AWS users.

AWS has previously cut off WikiLeaks and Gab, another social networking site popular with the far right, and it encouraged customers to drop support for 8chan, the online billboard and hub for conspiracy theorists.

Parler, which has said its site was not to blame for last week's violence, called Amazon's action "motivated by political animus".

"Without AWS, Parler is finished as it has no way to get online," the social media company said in its complaint.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2021, with the headline ''. Print Edition | Subscribe