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‘Free Speech Alternative’ Parler Comes Back to Play Store With New Content Moderation Features in Tow

Parler’s case again highlights debate between platform safety and Big Tech dominance over access and distribution of content online

Parler has been reinstated on the Google Play Store ‘after an unusually long approval process spanning months rather than days,’ announced a September 2nd press release. The app will be available to download from the Play Store on Friday.

Launched in 2018, the self-described free speech alternative to Twitter and Facebook favoured by conservatives in the US was removed from the Play Store in January 2021. Critics believed that the platform failed to moderate violent and incendiary content in the run-up to the Capitol Hill riots.

Parler’s reinstatement on the Play Store this year comes off the back of a slew of new content moderation measures (although the press release is conspicuously silent on what these measures might actually be). The platform has ‘substantially modified its app to comply with Play Store’s policies,’ said a Google spokesperson in conversation with Reuters. These include new features to remove potentially inflammatory and violent content and to block abusive accounts.

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‘All apps on Google Play that feature User Generated Content (UGC) are required to implement robust moderation practices that prohibit objectionable content, provide an in-app system for reporting objectionable UGC, take action against that UGC where appropriate, and remove or block abusive users who violate the app’s terms of use and/or user policy.’ — Google spokesperson in conversation with CNN.

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Following in the footsteps of Google last year, Apple removed the platform from the App Store while Amazon suspended the platform from Amazon Web Services. Speaking on the broad array of suspensions at the time, Parler’s former CEO John Matze stated that ‘this was a coordinated attack by the tech giants to kill competition in the market place [sic].’ After rejecting an initial request for reinstatement on the App Store in March 2021—as Parler was allegedly still hosting Nazi symbols—Apple reinstated the platform a few months late in May.

The platform will now also moderate posts appearing in the app advertised on the Play Store, reports Bloomberg. According to The Verge, this mimics a similar practice Parler has in place for the iOS versions of its app, which ‘allows it to remain on the App Store’. Content that is allowed on the Parler network—as per its expansive definition of free speech—but not in the iOS version of the app hosted on the App Store will still be accessible through its web-based version. An Android version of the app can be downloaded directly from its website too.

Why it matters: Whether the Parler episode is really about content moderation, or flexing market dominance as and when it’s convenient, remains to be seen. After all, the App Store and Play Store hold the cards when it comes to distribution and revenue (ultimately leading to multiple antitrust investigations by market regulators worldover). For example, this isn’t the first time conservative social media platforms have sparred with powerful app store monopolists over lacklustre moderation of violent content. Truth Social—the brainchild of former US President Donald Trump—is yet to be distributed on the Play Store. This is despite the fact that its competitors hosted on the Play Store (read: Twitter) routinely flout guidelines prohibiting sexually explicit content from being posted, claims the platform. On the flip side, the App Store approved the iOS version of the app once it launched in February 2022—despite having what are perceived to be relatively tougher content moderation guidelines.

Parler raised $20 million in a funding round earlier this year. It also launched a premium branded marketplace for NFTs called DeepRedSky—whose first collection Official CryptoTRUMP showcased ‘images of former President Donald Trump in various settings and elements’.

What are Parler’s current content moderation guidelines?

Last updated in November 2021, Parler’s stated mission is to ‘offer a social platform in the spirit of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, one which empowers the individual to think and share freely.’

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This entails a light-touch approach to removing users or the content they share on the platform.

Parler is clear that it will not interfere with opinion-based content moderation on the platform. ‘In no case will Parler decide what will [sic] content be removed or filtered, or whose account will be removed, on the basis of the opinion expressed within the content at issue. Parler’s policies are, to use a well-known concept in First Amendment law, viewpoint-neutral,’ say its Community Guidelines.

In such cases, users are equipped with tools to shape the kind of speech they access on the platform. These include basic features such as muting and blocking users or comments. For example, Parler allows ‘Not Safe For Work’ content—popularly construed to be of a sexually explicit nature—and trolling. A ‘double-filter system’ ensures that this content is not seen by users who choose not to.

However, Parler will remove content or user accounts when the platform is used to aid crime, civil torts, or unlawful acts. It will do so when ‘a reasonable and objective observer’ believes that the content constitutes such activity. Notably, while using ‘fighting words’ does not violate Parler’s guidelines, any content that constitutes a serious threat to incite violence does.

Once reported to its Community Jury, Parler is obliged by law to also remove content pertaining to child sexual abuse, terrorist material, or IP theft. Outside of its legal obligations, Parler may also flag or remove content ‘used by someone in commission of a crime or civil tort’—such as fraud, nuisance, and criminal solicitation.

Parler will also proactively remove accounts posting spam or run by bots—‘particularly when the behavior negatively affects the ability of those participating in our Influencer Network to monetize themselves’.

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