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Here’s why Parler is still struggling to come back online

The right-wing social media service has been banned by AWS along with a host of smaller internet infrastructure companies—and there’s no easy backup plan.

Here’s why Parler is still struggling to come back online
[Source images: GarryKillian/iStock; terex/IStock]
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After being shunned by Amazon and a slew of other tech companies, Parler appears to be reassembling itself piecemeal.

The social network favored by the far-right relaunched as a mostly static website over the weekend with the help of at least two other entities. It has a domain name registered through Epik, and it’s getting protection against denial-of-service attacks from a firm with Russian ties called DDoS-Guard. Although Parler hasn’t revealed a replacement for Amazon Web Services, and has overpromised on its ability to get back online before, CEO John Matze told Fox News that he’s confident the social network will be in working order by the end of the month. (Of course, Matze originally said Parler would be back up in a week. He did not respond to a request for comment.)

If that actually happens, Parler will have run a gauntlet that few companies have gone through before, especially on short notice. Experts say that getting back online isn’t just about finding a replacement for Amazon’s web hosting and storage, but about recreating an array of tools that most online services take for granted. Putting those replacements together will require significant investments in both infrastructure and manpower.

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That’s not to say you should shed a tear for Parler, whose “free speech” mantra is often just a veneer for hate, but its ouster underscores how difficult it can be to run a modern web service without major providers like Amazon. The vast majority of companies will never have to worry about running afoul of Amazon or its competitors, but those that do may find themselves without any great backup plans.

Falling through the clouds

The appeal of a service like Amazon Web Services is the ease with which it allows other companies to get online. Instead of having to buy and configure server space themselves at considerable capital expense, they can just pay for what they need.

That’s why Parler’s easiest option would be to migrate to a competing service, such as Google Cloud or Microsoft Azure. It would still involve a fair amount of effort—Parler would have to reengineer its application to work with those providers—but it would represent the simplest path to getting back online.

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Neither Google nor Microsoft have said whether Parler tried to work with them (Microsoft said there was nothing to share and Google did not respond to a request for comment). The Wall Street Journal also reported last week that Parler “wouldn’t run” on cloud computing services from Oracle. And given that Parler is suing Amazon, other companies might not want to get involved anyway. (Amazon says the suit is “meritless.”)

[Source images: GarryKillian/iStock; terex/IStock]
“I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were them too much, because it seems like all of big tech as a whole has decided how they’re handling Parler,” says Daniel Elman, a cloud industry analyst with Nucleus Research.

Holger Mueller, an analyst with Constellation Research, says Parler could instead try to work with a major overseas cloud provider, such as Alibaba in China or Softline in Russia, but doing so would carry its own baggage. For a social network whose website says “privacy is paramount and free speech essential,” the optics of hosting their servers in Russia or China probably isn’t ideal (even if it’s relying on a Russia-linked firm for denial of service protection).

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“There’s reputational risk and spying risk,” Mueller says. “It would be like a deal with the devil.”

Going it alone

In lieu of working with a major cloud provider, Parler could instead find a smaller web host for storage or cloud computing power, but that presents new challenges.

For one thing, those smaller providers don’t provide AWS-like levels of software support. The allure of major cloud providers is that they simplify things like analytics, data processing, content delivery, and balancing demand across numerous servers. With a smaller host, Parler would likely have to seek out or recreate those features on its own. Epik’s domain registration and DDoS Guard’s denial of service protection are both examples of services that Amazon might have otherwise provided.

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It would be like a deal with the devil.”

Holger Mueller

“These smaller hosting players, they can give you the nuts and bolts and make your site accessible and keep it up and running, but they don’t have that next-level technical expertise or the breadth of experience working with so many different businesses and organizations,” Elman says.

Besides, smaller providers could just as easily show Parler the door. DigitalOcean, for instance, has already said that Parler would not be welcome on its hosting service.

“The problem is that you’re then once again putting your destiny into a different company’s hands,” says Corey Quinn, the chief cloud economist at The Duckbill Group. “You always are to some extent. It’s just a question of how far down you go before you’re sufficiently murky that no one party can blow you off the internet.”

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If Parler didn’t want to risk being dropped by another web host, it could alternatively set up its own in-house servers. That’s what the far-right social network Gab did after getting dropped by its hosting provider, Joyent, in 2018. After relying on a different host for the following two years, Gab announced last September that it had built its own infrastructure instead.

But going that route is even more burdensome than relying on a smaller host. Again, Parler would have to work out all of the areas where its code expects to hook into Amazon Web Services in particular, and it would have to rebuild many of the tools that Amazon had provided as part of its service. On top of all that, Parler would have to pay for the actual servers, wait for them to arrive, and employ enough engineers to actually configure them.

“All of this is stuff that just goes away when you’re in a traditional cloud provider, because it’s just an API call away,” Quinn says. “It’s a long-term commitment in a way that cloud computing historically has not been.”

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Beyond big tech

While most of those hurdles stem from being kicked off Amazon Web Services, the deplatforming of Parler hasn’t come exclusively from tech giants.

A day before Amazon notified Parler that it would stop hosting the service, Parler was also cut off from using Twilio, a service that lets companies text message their users for things like identify verification. Okta, another company that provides sign-in software for web services, also gave Parler the boot that same weekend. Neither of those companies are tech behemoths; they simply didn’t want to be associated with Parler anymore.

The loss of those services amount to even more work that Parler must do if it wants to get back online. Dave Troy, an independent disinformation researcher, says building a text message verification service similar to Twilio will be especially painful, and the fact that Parler has sued Amazon could discourage other firms from offering their services.

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There’s all these barriers that they’re going to run into by virtue of just being them.”

Dave Troy

“There’s all these barriers that they’re going to run into by virtue of just being them,” Troy says. “No company’s going to be like, ‘Let’s do business with this really litigious, awful, toxic company that’s going to make ourselves look bad.'”

Parler could run into other choke points as well. The social network does not have a clear business model—CEO John Matze has previously described some kind of influencer marketing plan—and its funding sources are murky. Given that Stripe and PayPal have both stopped processing payments from the Donald Trump campaign, and that Shopify has taken down Trump’s campaign store, Parler could conceivably run into similar struggles if it ever wanted to solicit payments from users. Like Gab, it may have to rely on fringe payment processors with limited capabilities.

“They’re not just trying to avoid AWS services, because that can be done and is being done. But they’re also now having to avoid basically every mainstream SAAS company that you would normally rely on today,” says Corey Quinn of The Duckbill Group.

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[Source images: GarryKillian/iStock; Gearstd/iStock]

Free speech fears

Whether all of this proves that free speech is under assault or that big tech companies have grown too powerful is harder to say.

In a blog post last week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation argued that Parler’s deplatforming should be cause for concern regardless of what anyone thinks of its content. Cloud providers, payment processors, and other internet infrastructure providers all wield immense power over free speech, the group said, largely without transparency or due process. That same power could eventually silence marginalized voices as well.

“Now that the world has been reminded that infrastructure can be commandeered to make decisions to control speech, calls for it will increase, and principled objections may fall to the wayside,” the EFF wrote.

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That’s not to say the alternatives are neat and clean either. The EFF calls for decentralizing the chokepoints in our internet infrastructure, which sounds like an argument for more competition in services like cloud storage. But Parler isn’t just facing the wrath of a single gatekeeper. Instead, it’s being cut off on several fronts by companies large and small, all of which apparently view the social network as too toxic to deal with.

As Quinn points out, it’s a path that hardly any other website will have to walk. “It’s deep, and complex, and it’s murky, and 99% of the time no one has to think of this,” he says.

As for Parler, it does have other paths to getting back online, and appears confident that it will take them in the near future. On some level, then, this is the internet working as intended: Hate speech will still exist, but after Parler failed to moderate the worst of it, it’s being pushed to the margins.