Parler is not the free speech utopia that Trump allies hope for

There has recently been a lot of focus on Parler, an app that bills itself as a free-speech escape from increasingly brazen Twitter and Facebook censorship. Twitter has abandoned efforts to hide its intent anymore, as it censors Trump tweets almost daily and continues to ban conservatives for political commentary. Conservatives talk a big game about the threat to free speech, and then they log right back on to Twitter and do precisely nothing about it.

Enter Parler, which is the first real, concerted effort by mainstream conservatives to move to a less hostile environment. Major politicians and commentators are making accounts under the pretense that Parler offers an unbiased form of informational commons, assuming that interactions won’t be met by oversight from self-appointed gatekeepers of proper opinions.

Their assumption is misplaced, which will be obvious to anyone who reads Parler’s Terms of Service.

A terms of service agreement provides the guidelines for how a company manages its relationship with its users. Whenever Twitter bans a user, it points to its terms for justification. Terms can evolve over time, but, considering its branding as a free-speech beacon, you’d expect Parler’s to feel as unrestrictive and liberty-promoting as Arizona’s gun laws. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

Here are some of the most concerning terms Parler makes you agree to:

  • Item 9: “Parler may remove any content and terminate your access to the Services at any time and for any reason or no reason … Parler is free to remove content and terminate your access to the Services even where the Guidelines have been followed.”
  • Item 12: “You agree to arbitrate any dispute that you have with Parler.”
  • Item 13: “You agree that you will not participate in a class action claim against Parler.”
  • Item 14: “You agree to defend and indemnify Parler … from and against any and all claims, actions, damages, obligations, losses, liabilities, costs or debt, and expenses (including but not limited to all attorneys fees) arising from or relating to your access to and use of the Services. Parler will have the right to conduct its own defense, at your expense, in any action or proceeding covered by this indemnity.” This is unusual and very noteworthy (see more below). While consistent with a theme of freedom of expression and personal responsibility for your words, this is an item that all users should be explicitly aware of and should not only be found in a terms of service agreement that few read.
  • Item 17 basically says Parler can change all these terms at any time without notifying users.
  • Some services require a Social Security number to use (Item 6).
  • Parler requires a phone number to sign up. If you grant them access to your address book, Parler will store all that information and use it as they see fit.
  • All content posted on Parler is hidden behind its login wall.
  • You have to give Parler a picture of your driver’s license and a selfie just to direct message people.
  • Pornography is banned: not just imagery, but written descriptions that they find to be lewd or explicit.

The negative consequences of these terms are mostly self-evident, though a few deserve further discussion.

Items 9 and 17 feel like they’re straight out of Twitter’s playbook. “We can do whatever we want” language is a legal boilerplate and is antithetical to Parler’s explicitly stated mission to serve as a platform for free speech.

The most onerous is Item 14. Parler can literally send you a bill for fees or potentially lost income, which it incurs if attributed to your posts. Most who have criticized this have focused on the legal liability component of it (Parler can bill you for legal fees), but users must also agree to cover any “losses” or “damages.”

Parler makes money via an ad-matching approach that links companies with influencers, and it also plans to sell ads in the future. What if your posts evoke outrage among PC-minded corporations that decide to cease ads on Parler? Companies are increasingly wielding this approach to impose censorship, with massive pressure being placed on Facebook lately in exactly this way. If this happens and it can be blamed on your posts, is this a “loss” relating to your “access of the services”? It certainly sounds like it, and a capable attorney could likely make the case.

I was rather taken aback (as were others) by the necessity to provide a Social Security number for accessing some functions of the platform, and requiring users to provide a driver’s license to send direct messages is simply ridiculous. It’s also incredibly disappointing that the only way you can see Parler posts is if you have an account and are logged into the platform. Tweets are publicly visible, which has contributed to Twitter’s success. Parler’s firewall-type approach will significantly constrain the reach and accessibility of those who use the platform, almost guaranteeing that the conservatives who disproportionately use the service likely will not get their message in front of as many eyes.

It’s great to see tech entrepreneurs focusing on products oriented toward facilitating freedom of expression in the informational commons that is social media. But I suspect that Parler is not the First Amendment utopia it’s thought to be.

Jason Orestes (@market_noises) is a former Wall Street financial analyst who focuses on contemporary political developments affecting economics, markets, and culture. His commentary can be found on TheStreetMSN Money, the Washington ExaminerRealClearMarkets, and RealClearPolitics.

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