A legal dispute played out in court Thursday over whether Amazon had inappropriately deplatformed Twitter-alternative Parler when it suspended the site's hosting on Amazon Web Services last weekend.
Parler's attorneys asked a federal judge in Seattle to compel Amazon to restore its cloud service. Parler filed an antitrust suit Monday claiming that Amazon acted with "political animus" when it suspended its account late Sunday night. On Thursday, lawyers denied the site was used to incite last week's breach of the U.S. Capitol building.
Amazon responded by calling the lawsuit "meritless," and said that Parler's refusal to remove overtly violent content after repeated requests to do so was the reason Amazon cut off its hosting services.
Parler claims that Amazon had an incentive to conspire against its platform: Namely, Amazon recently signed a deal to provide web services for Twitter. To support its claim of unfair treatment, Parler notes that Twitter was not reprimanded or punished by Amazon for the hashtag #HangMikePence, which was trending the day before Parler's suspension. Parler asserts that Amazon's choice to suspend its hosting was "designed to reduce competition in the microblogging services market to the benefit of Twitter."
Amazon has denied these accusations and cites Parler's unwillingness to delete content that threatened public safety "by inciting and planning the rape, torture, and assassination of named public officials and private citizens" as the sole reason for its suspension. Amazon says it repeatedly notified Parler that its content was in violation of user terms and chose to take action only as a "last resort."
Does Parler's claim have any merit? Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and an attorney who specializes in internet law, tells Reason that for Parler's antitrust claim to hold up, it must be established that Amazon and Twitter have a shared purpose in driving Parler out of business.
"I think it is a high bar," Cohn says. "I don't see that the facts support it."
"The claims are really weak, legally and factually," she says. Even if it were to be proven that Parler was explicitly targeted for political reasons and that Amazon's policies were not implemented fairly, Parler would still fail to furnish the evidence required to prove an antitrust violation.
"A business gets to decide who it does business with," Cohn says. "Nothing in this complaint demonstrates collusion between Twitter and Amazon."
In an interview with the Washington Examiner, University of Pennsylvania law professor and antitrust expert Herbert Hovenkamp said that Parler's claims of political discrimination may actually work against them. "If its intent is to exclude views because they threaten violence or lead to distrust of government but not merely to eliminate a competitor, then the exclusion is probably not covered by antitrust law."
Even though Cohn has severe doubts about Parler's case, she nevertheless has concerns about Amazon controlling such a large part of the cloud services market.
"The bigger problem is that Amazon doesn't have a lot of competitors," Cohn says. "I would like to see more competition in web hosting. If kicked off, it is difficult to find an alternative place."
Amazon Web Services currently controls about one-third of the global cloud market, almost twice that of its closest competitor Microsoft.