In the aftermath of the riot at the U.S. Capitol this week, tech companies have been forced to take a hard look at how their platforms may have facilitated or even contributed to illegal activity. Twitter and Facebook both locked the account of President Trump because of posts they say had the potential to incite further violence.
Now, Google and Apple have removed Parler, a social media app that became the number one downloaded free app late this week. The social network has attracted large numbers of right-wing political and media personalities because of its hands-off approach to content moderation, in contrast to what they say is heavy handed censorship by Facebook and Twitter.
In separate statements, both companies cited the platform's role in planning and encouraging violence--including the January 6 attack while Congress was counting the Electoral College votes--as reasons for the ban.
In a statement on Saturday evening, Apple said it is removing the app from the App Store:
We have always supported diverse points of view being represented on the App Store, but there is no place on our platform for threats of violence and illegal activity. Parler has not taken adequate measures to address the proliferation of these threats to people's safety.
Apple had previously sent a letter to the developers of Parler stating:
Our investigation has found that Parler is not effectively moderating and removing content that encourages illegal activity and poses a serious risk to the health and safety of users in direct violation of your own terms of service.
Because I write about such things, I've received more than a few messages from people saying they plan to get rid of their iPhones over the idea that Apple is just another tech company censoring free speech. They aren't alone. (I'm not going to link to the tweets because I promise that's not a rabbit hole you want to go down.)
Briefly, if you're considering ditching your iPhone because of this, obviously Google has already removed the app from the Google Play Store, meaning that won't make it easier to get the app. Google did say it hasn't blocked the app from being side-loaded, and it is still available in third-party app stores on Android.
Also, as Fortnite users know, having the app removed from the App Store doesn't make it unusable on your device. If you've already downloaded it, you can keep using it. The developer just won't be able to provide new features or bug fixes unless it makes the appropriate changes.
UPDATE: Amazon has since said it will block the app from Amazon Web Services, which would make the app unable to function if it doesn't find a new cloud hosting service before 11:59 p.m. PT on January 10.
There are a few things worth considering. First, Apple's letter to Parler makes it clear the iPhone makers' biggest concern is that the app is in violation of both Apple's Developer Agreement and Parler's own terms of service.
Apple and Google have clearly defined terms they expect developers to abide by when they make their apps available through their respective app stores. Apple highlights this in its letter to Parler:
We want to be clear that Parler is in fact responsible for all the user-generated content present on your service and for ensuring that this content meets App Store requirements for the safety and protection of our users. We won't distribute apps that present dangerous and harmful content.
Ultimately, Apple isn't obligated to distribute any app that violates those terms. That isn't censorship. Neither is it a violation of anyone's first amendment rights.
I'm not a constitutional scholar, but I did take high school civics. And as every high school student can tell you, the first amendment protects you from the government taking action against you for something you say. It means the government can't throw you in jail because you criticize the president, or your senator, or the mayor.
It doesn't mean you have some inalienable right to post 280-character diatribes from your iPhone any time you're upset about something. We can certainly debate whether we want giant tech companies to be the ones who get to decide what constitutes acceptable "speech" or what we can do on our devices. It's just not going to be a first amendment debate.
That's important context because the argument being made by many people is that Google and Apple are censoring people's free speech. To be clear, Apple and Google didn't remove Parler because of any particular political viewpoint. They didn't remove it because they don't like President Trump. As of this writing, to my knowledge, he doesn't even use Parler.
They banned it because the app became a platform for planning and encouraging illegal activity. Free expression isn't the same as providing a platform. Apple made it clear that its primary concern was for the protection of its platform.
The company made clear that its position is that there's "no place on our platform for threats of violence and illegal activity." Apple is accountable for what it allows on its platform and isn't going to allow any apps that jeopardize that.
The lesson here is that whether or not you feel that you're responsible for the content on your platform, you are accountable for it. That's important because even though you might tell yourself that you're simply creating a place for people to express their ideas, the reality is that when you make it possible to amplify those ideas, suddenly the equation changes.
When you build a platform, you're accountable for how it's used. You might be fine with a free-for-all. That's your choice. Just don't be surprised that companies like Google and Apple aren't.