Jan 15, 2021 - Technology

The deplatforming fight shifts to the courts

Illustration of scales of justice holding apps with the deleted X
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The Capitol riot and tech firms' sweeping attempt in its wake to dislodge the online far right are kicking up efforts to have the courts settle knotty questions about online speech and power.

Why it matters: Legal battles could force the people angry at Big Tech to bring more rigor to arguments that have often devolved into messy sideshows.

What's happening: Conservatives have insisted for years that Silicon Valley is biased against them, but the Capitol siege and subsequent deplatforming are drawing sharper battle lines between the mainstream and the online right. Parties on either side are this week pleading with judges and prosecutors to intervene.

Parler vs. Amazon: Parler sued Amazon after its AWS unit kicked the right-wing-friendly social network off its hosting due to violent threats made on the platform before the Capitol siege. Parler contends Amazon breached its contract and is breaking antitrust laws, hurting Parler to benefit Twitter, another AWS client.

  • In a hearing Thursday, Parler's attorney said "millions of law-abiding Americans have had their voices silenced by AWS's decision," which he contended was made without sufficient notice. He didn't raise the antitrust claims — widely viewed as weak, relying on claims of collusion between Amazon and Twitter that Parler has made no attempt to prove.
  • Amazon argued it had the right to terminate service immediately and said Parler has shown itself unwilling and unable to develop a moderation plan for keeping harmful content off the platform.

Rumble vs. Google: Toronto-based Rumble, an increasingly popular streaming-video platform on the right, sued Google, accusing it of steering users of its search engine to YouTube over competing video services.

  • “We will defend ourselves against these baseless claims," a Google spokesperson said.

ADL v. Gab: No civil suits have been filed or threatened, but the ADL is calling on right-wing-friendly social network Gab to potentially be held criminally liable for Capitol riot mobilization on its platform. Section 230, which shields online platforms from civil liability over user-posted content, doesn't apply to federal crimes.

  • The group, per a Wednesday letter, wants the Justice Department and FBI to open a criminal investigation into whether Gab "intentionally aided, conspired with, or directed individuals to carry out the January 6 attack."
  • "The ADL should be calling for an investigation into Facebook, where the protests were actually organized," Gab CEO Andrew Torba countered in a blog post. "Gab is great for a lot of things, but it’s not a utility for organizing events."

Between the lines: The Parler and Rumble suits, as well as the prospect of Gab being prosecuted, are all viewed as long shots.

  • The Rumble lawsuit most closely resembles other serious litigation targeting tech giants, with allegations of self-preferencing in search at the heart of an antitrust suit that dozens of state attorneys general filed against Google last month.
  • But Rumble still faces an uphill battle. The company would have to convince a judge to accept a novel interpretation of existing antitrust laws to account for new technology — a tough sell.

"Antitrust is a blunt instrument, not well-suited to thorny questions about how to balance free speech interests, especially content that may be lawful but awful," said Avery Gardiner, general counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology and a former DOJ antitrust lawyer.

Our thought bubble: The calls for intervention from judges and prosecutors, more than serious legal arguments, are an attempt to formalize an expression of rage on either side.

  • Still, that anger isn't going away, and neither are major tech firms' efforts to tamp down on violent and threatening rhetoric. Expect to see more lawsuits and calls for prosecution ahead.
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