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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.

Go deeper

Jan 28, 2021 - Technology

Big Tech bolts politics

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Big Tech fed politics. Then it bled politics. Now it wants to be dead to politics. 

Why it matters: The social platforms that profited massively on politics and free speech suddenly want a way out — or at least a way to hide until the heat cools. 

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Republicans’ secret lobbying

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The five Senate Republicans who helped negotiate and draft the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill have been privately courting their Republican colleagues to pass the measure in the House.

Why it matters: House GOP leaders are actively urging their members to oppose the bill. The senators are working to undercut that effort as Monday shapes up as a do-or-die moment for the bipartisan bill.

CBC members nix border visit

A Haitian migrant carries a toddler on his shoulders today as he crosses the Rio Grande River. Photo: Pedro Pardo/AFP via Getty Images

Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus weighed visiting the U.S.-Mexico border this week to investigate the conditions faced by Haitian migrants and protest allegations of inhumane treatment by U.S. agents.

Why it matters: It's a thorny proposition both in terms of timing and messaging. Going assures a new wave of negative headlines for President Biden amid sinking popularity. And with congressional deadlines in the coming days over infrastructure, a possible government shutdown and debt-limit crisis, Democrats can't afford to lose any votes in the House.