Entrepreneur, Investor, Bestselling Author & founder of Play Labs @ MIT
I am no fan of the power that Apple and Google assert over the ecosystem of mobile developers with the power to pull any app, effectively cutting them off from a large percentage of smartphone users. In fact, I’ve argued that they are de facto monopolies, more akin to Big Brother than companies which uphold our democratic and free market traditions, and should be regulated, even broken up as part of the Big Tech antitrust suit. So you would be surprised to learn that I contend that both Google and Apple’s action this week with Parler, a social media app popular with Trump supporters, were entirely proper.
Just last week, the riots of Trump supporters who broke into the Capitol building and stopped the counting of the electoral votes has had ripples in the tech industry. Social media giants like Twitter and Facebook have moved to ban President Trump for fear that he would incite his followers to return to the capital for a repeat performance just before or on the day of President-elect Biden’s inauguration.
This has caused many conservatives to accuse big tech of “censorship”. In response to these bans, many Trump supporters (and he had over 80 million on Twitter alone) have moved to Parler, making it the number one downloaded app in the app store just before the ban. Parler has gained steam since the recent election since Twitter and Facebook started labelling Trump’s charges of “election fraud” as disputed, pitching itself as social media without censorship and without rules, which appealed to Trump’s base, who were tired of having their election fraud claims questioned.
In response, among growing evidence that social media in general, and Parler in particular, had been used by Trump supporters to plan the descent on DC on January 6th specifically to disrupt the electoral college count. This coupled with a number of extremists on the platform (and on other social media) threatening to “Hang Pence” since the Vice President announced that he would not (and in fact, could not) over turn the results of the election as Trump supporters wanted him to.
Apple initially sent a letter to Parler saying that its app would be removed within 24 hours if it wasn’t able to police itself and abide by the rules of the App Store, which alleged that it had received numerous complaints that the app “was used to plan, , coordinate and facilitate the illegal activities in Washington D.C. on January 6th, 20201” and that it “appears to continue to be used to plan and facilitate yet further illegal and dangerous activities.” Within 24 hours, the Parler app, which was the #1 downloaded app during the previous few days, was removed from the Apple App Store as well.
Since 2010, when I helped create one of the first successful apps on the Apple App Store, I have been arguing that Apple in particular (and to a lesser extent, Google), not only applies the rules of its app stores capriciously, kicking out whoever it wants, but this dynamic results in anticompetitive behavior.
Basically, my argument was that these two app stores (though Apple more so than Google), act as de-facto monopolies with the power to cut off any business from its customers since there isn’t a good way to get your app onto an iPhone or iPad without going through the App Store, discouraging competition and ultimately harming consumers.
So why wouldn’t I agree then, with many conservatives, who believe that kicking Parler out of the App Store is another example of abusing their monopolistic powers?
My original argument was quite simple — Apple and Google shouldn’t have the power to stop people from installing whatever they want on their computers, just as, once upon a time, neither Microsoft nor IBM could control what apps you installed on your Windows PC. Mobile phones are the most popular computing platform in history and no one (or two companies) should be able to control everything you do on these devices.
The problem is not just that a company like Apple is free to create its own guidelines and enforce them inconsistently. It’s that the “app store” guidelines are not approved by any elected bodies and are not laws by any means and so it cannot be the ultimate arbiter of what consumers can or cannot get access to.
However, I never argued that Apple or Google’s App Stores should be used to plan, encourage and incite illegal activities (against which there are already laws) or overthrow of democratically elected governments, which it’s becoming increasingly clear that Parler was being used for by extremists.
Using a simple analogy, in the video game space, for example, there are many social casino apps, such as virtual slot machines — which do not allow real money gambling because that would be against the laws of most states in the US. As a result, Google and Apple do not allow real-money gambling in apps in the US app stores. Some countries, such as Korea, for example, don’t even allow “simulated gambling”, and Apple and Google have had to block virtual gambling apps in those countries, while they are allowed in the US.
There is however, a line here that is more nuanced than it looks at first. Where do you draw the line?
For example, in case of the dark web marketplace Silk Road, it was being used to facilitate criminal activities, including murder and kidnapping, using Bitcoin, which is harder to trace than bank transfers of money. This doesn’t mean that Bitcoin should be outlawed, since there is no law against using Bitcoin to pay people for services. The Justice Department did in fact, realize there was criminal activity and ended up arresting Ross Ulbricht, the founder of the Silk Road (who some sources have said was recently being considered for a pardon by President Trump).
Silk Road was set up explicitly for facilitating illegal activity. Parler wasn’t necessarily set up for facilitating illegal activity, though it’s “no rules” ethic and popularity among far right sites made it an attractive place for those contemplating such activities to plan, indoctrinate and recruit more “revolutionaries”.
Simply removing Parler from the app stores didn’t kill it. In fact, users could still go on their website and continue to use the app. Moreover, on Android, you can install apps without an app store, and there are many app stores as alternatives to the Google Play store, though it is by far the most popular in the US. In China, for example, some of these app stores are even more popular than Google Play and follow a different set of rules. I have also argued that Apple should allow other app stores on its platform as well, just as Google does, which may have different sets of guidelines (though of course, they also presumably wouldn’t allow illegal activity to be going on).
However, Amazon also decided, following the lead of the app stores, to remove Parler’s AWS (Amazon Web Services) hosting services, upon which hte app was based, and this became an even bigger issue for Parler. It has has brought the app and website down. This means that Parler will have to rebuilt its tech infrastructure from the ground up to work on a different technology stack, which is not very easy to do.
Many conservatives are now using the “free speech” argument, saying that “Big Tech”(Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter) is trying to silence conservative voices. Parler even initiated a lawsuit against Amazon. You could argue that Fox News, perhaps the largest conservative outlet, has apps that are thriving on these channels. While that may or may not be the case, that is an entirely different point.
It would be easier for Parler to simply crack down on illegal activity than to rebuild from the ground up. This is easier said than done in Trump world, which has been fed (and have believed), on social platforms like Facebook and Twitter and Parler, that the election was stolen from them and they have to “rise up” against the oppression! Already, there are many Trump supporting websites that are planning another incursion into Washington to try to overturn the inauguration, this time with a lot more weapons..
Neither Apple nor Google should forced to be a party to that. Although I have argued repeatedly that Google and Apple have entirely too much power with their App Stores, in this case, I think they acted properly.
Rizwan Virk is a venture capitalist, founder of Play Labs @ MIT and the author of “The Simulation Hypothesis: An MIT Computer Scientist Shows Why AI, Quantum Physics and Eastern Mystics Agree We Are in a Video Game.” Follow him via his website at www.zenentrepreneur.com or on Twitter @rizstanford.
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