With help from Bjarke Smith-Meyer and Mark Scott
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— Parler’s Amazon offensive: Parler is arguing before a judge today that Amazon Web Services violated antitrust law by shutting it down over content related to the riots — just as the conservative platform was surging in popularity.
— Texas cries censorship: Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued the civil equivalent of a subpoena to force Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon Web Services and Apple to turn over information related to their handling of Parler.
— Oral arguments in WeChat-Trump: WeChat users, who are fighting the Trump administration’s attempted ban of the Chinese-owned messaging app on free speech grounds, will also get their time before a judge today.
THE NEVER-ENDING WEEK CONTINUES: IT’S THURSDAY. WELCOME TO MORNING TECH. I’m your host, Alexandra Levine.
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TODAY: PARLER V. AMAZON — A judge will hear complaints this afternoon in Parler’s new lawsuit against Amazon, which accuses the tech giant of violating antitrust law by pulling the plug on the platform “at the very time it is set to skyrocket.” Parler sued Amazon this week after Amazon Web Services, which had been hosting the right-wing social media site, forced it to go dark over its failure to meaningfully address violent content that helped incite the fatal storming of the Capitol. Parler said in a filing Wednesday that it “now faces a real, non-speculative threat of ‘extinction.’”
— No new friends: “The notoriety and fallout from the break-up have driven away current and potential business partners, utterly frustrating Parler’s pre-termination plans to quickly replace and recover from AWS,” the filing said. It also said that “despite media attempts to tie Parler to the Capitol Riot, not one person that the news media has reported so far (as of the filing of this suit) was arrested for the riot has a Parler account.”
— Amazon argues there’s ‘no merit’ to Parler’s allegations: Amazon Web Services has stressed that it offers its technology to customers across the political spectrum. “We respect Parler’s right to determine for itself what content it will allow,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “However, it is clear that there is significant content on Parler that encourages and incites violence against others, and that Parler is unable or unwilling to promptly identify and remove this content, which is a violation of our terms of service.”
— Amazon et. al get the full court press: Paxton issued civil investigative demands (an action akin to subpoena) to Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon Web Services and Apple on Wednesday for information on their content moderation policies — and on their engagement with Parler. (Remember: Google and Apple recently booted Parler from their app stores over concerns about the violence. On Wednesday night, Snapchat also suspended the president indefinitely.) Paxton, who is already leading an antitrust suit against Google, accused the tech companies of bias and censorship.
“The seemingly coordinated de-platforming of the President of the United States and several leading voices not only chills free speech, it wholly silences those whose speech and political beliefs do not align with leaders of Big Tech companies,” he said in a statement. He added that “the public deserves the truth about how these companies moderate and possibly eliminate speech they disagree with.”
— The president himself also weighed in: In a video shared on the White House Twitter account Wednesday evening — shortly after President Donald Trump became the first U.S. president to be impeached twice — he condemned what he described as “the unprecedented assault on free speech.” He added: “The efforts to censor, cancel and blacklist our fellow citizens are wrong and they are dangerous.”
— And then, so did Jack Dorsey: The Twitter CEO on Wednesday night addressed the platform’s Trump ban for the first time, lamenting in a tweet thread the “real and significant ramifications” of having to take such action. Dorsey also denied that internet companies were in cahoots on their respective bans or decisions “not to host what they found dangerous.” “I do not believe this was coordinated,” he wrote. “More likely: companies came to their own conclusions or were emboldened by the actions of others.”
— Now, with Parler’s future uncertain: There’s a mass migration to platforms including Telegram and Signal, raising concern that the apps could be used to organize more violence in the lead-up to Inauguration Day. Telegram, for one, is already struggling to police extremist content.
ANOTHER NOTABLE HEARING: WECHAT USERS FIGHT FOR FREE SPEECH — Oral arguments are happening today in a case brought by WeChat users after Trump targeted the Chinese app with an executive order last year. That order would have banned WeChat from U.S. app stores and cut off its access to tech it needs to keep running, but those restrictions were halted by federal judges, in part over users’ freedom of speech concerns. Yet Trump’s fight against Tencent-owned WeChat and other Chinese-owned apps continues, even in the final days of his presidency.
TECH TAX DEBATE HEATS UP — Tax experts from Amazon, Microsoft and Netflix are among the speakers who will today address the complexities of the global tech tax being developed at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, my colleague Bjarke Smith-Meyer reports from Brussels.
— Paris-based OECD is hosting the public discussion ahead of its month-end meeting on the so-called Pillar I levy. After it became clear last fall that a global deal on the tax would not be reached in 2020, G-20 policymakers granted the global body another six months to get one done. But if there’s no agreement by then, tough luck: EU officials have promised to deliver a tech tax by then, either way, to help fund the bloc’s budget.
— Still, others won’t even wait that long: French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire restarted France’s national digital tax in December and has called on the incoming administration in the U.S. to return to the OECD’s negotiating table. Le Maire has long fought for tax fairness as tech giants pay a fraction of the effective rate that mom-and-pop operators face, and leaders in other countries like Italy and Spain make similar arguments. But the U.S. government views the French digital taxes as unfairly discriminatory against American tech companies.
— View from the Valley (and beyond): Expect the tech firms today to reiterate their preference for an international deal, even if complicated, rather than a patchwork of national levies.
— Bjarke’s two cents: It’s worth remembering that there’s little revenue that a global, EU or national digital tax would bring in. This fight is about ideology. Tech firms will face political pressure but little real cost to play along — especially considering how well they’ve done during the pandemic.
CAPITOL RIOTERS’ ONLINE ANTICS ECHO GOVERNMENT ACTIVITY — Governments around the world are actively using many of the same online tactics used by the Capitol Hill rioters (who organized much of last week’s violence on social media) to push their own agendas. Eighty-one countries from the U.S. to Bolivia used some form of online propaganda on social media last year to push skewed narratives to either domestic or foreign audiences, according to a new report out from the Oxford Internet Institute. That’s a 15 percent jump from 2019 and includes efforts by governments, political parties and digital consultancies that spent tens of millions of dollars to peddle disinformation across the web.
— By the numbers: Between January 2019 and December 2020, almost 11,000 Facebook accounts, 125,000 Facebook pages, over 600 Facebook groups, 1,500 Instagram accounts and roughly 300,000 Twitter accounts associated with government disinformation activity have been removed from these social media networks.
— Plus: Here’s how European officials view American tech platforms’ bans on Trump.
LISTEN UP: ‘GETTING JOBS IN A POST-PANDEMIC WORLD’ — In a world turned upside-down by Covid-19 and tech disruption, the rules for how to prepare for or switch careers are changing. Concepts like reskilling and upskilling are on the rise. Click here to listen to the latest episode of POLITICO’s Global Translations podcast, where hosts Luiza Savage and Ryan Heath explore the new job training game.
Intel CEO Bob Swan is being ousted from the company, WSJ reports; VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger, who is a former Intel executive, will succeed him in February. … Wednesday was Elena Hernandez’s last day as press secretary in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. … Former CISA Director Chris Krebs was named chair of The Aspen Institute’s new bipartisan Commission on Information Disorder, created “to examine the nation’s public information crisis.” Krebs also joins Aspen Digital as its first senior Newmark fellow in cybersecurity policy. … Outgoing FCC Chair Ajit Pai announced more than 30 members appointed to the agency’s Disability Advisory Committee who will serve until the end of 2022. … The nonpartisan Science and Technology Action Committee wrote a letter urging the Biden transition team to elevate Office of Science and Technology Policy leadership to the Cabinet level.
Who, me? Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has deflected blame for the social network’s role in the recent violence at the Capitol, “but new evidence shows [the] platform played [a] pivotal role,” WaPo reports.
ICYMI: Airbnb is canceling all reservations in the D.C. area during inauguration week to deter and protect against potential violence, POLITICO reports.
A green light for China: “The U.S. government is expected to let Americans continue to invest in Chinese technology giants Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu after weighing the firms’ alleged ties to China’s military against the potential economic impact of banning them,” WSJ reports.
Anti-Semitism at the riots: After a “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie and other anti-Semitic apparel were spotted amid last week’s Capitol chaos, the Anti-Defamation League and World Jewish Congress are calling for online marketplaces to crack down on sales of “any product that promotes or glorifies white supremacy, racism, Holocaust denial or trivialization.”
Blogs OTD: Former FCC Chair Tom Wheeler writes about “the consequences of social media’s giant experiment” on the Brookings Institution’s TechTank blog. And Nicol Turner-Lee, director of The Center for Technology Innovation, encourages the Biden administration to establish a Tech New Deal in a separate TechTank blog.
Trouble for Flo Health: “The creator of a popular menstrual and ovulation tracking app has settled with the FTC over allegations it improperly shared users’ sensitive data, including pregnancy status, with Facebook, Google and other third parties,” POLITICO reports.
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