- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 24, 2021

Few people heard of the social media platform Parler before Big Tech’s political censorship made it a refuge for conservative voices in the 2020 election season.

Elevated to center stage in the internet’s censorship wars, Parler is now fighting for survival. Big Tech and other critics condemn it as a safe space for insurrectionists, though Parler’s supporters herald it as the last vestige of free speech on the internet.

Parler resembles the rival Twitter, hosting microblogging posts, aka Parleys.

The company’s use of a less-restrictive censorship regime attracted new scrutiny after the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. Google and Apple removed Parler from their app stores, and Amazon Web Services took Parler offline.

Critics also accuse Parler of data mining: Collecting extensive information about users that can be used for commercial or political purposes.

According to a cached version of Parler’s privacy policy updated in December, Parler said it collected a wide swath of personal information that included Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers, passport numbers, bank account numbers, credit card numbers and much more.

Parler’s collection of highly sensitive information like Social Security numbers and driver’s licenses to enable certain features is pretty far outside the norm for social media platforms and not something you see on Twitter or Facebook,” said Zach Graves, policy chief at Lincoln Network, a nonprofit group focused on bridging the gap between Silicon Valley and Washington.

“This is something you might [see] where there’s a good regulatory compliance reason, such as showing your driver’s license to get an account on ZipCar, or similarly on platforms like DraftKings or PredictIt to verify your identity for payments. But there’s no good reason for Parler to collect this information to, say, enable direct messages.”

Parler did not respond to The Washington Times’ questions about data mining.

For Parler’s fans, the freedom from censorship often trumps privacy concerns.

Big Tech’s battle with Parler has won it many conservative allies, including Internet Accountability Project founder Mike Davis, who wants government intervention to dismantle the tech companies’ dominance in the marketplace.

“Big Tech monopolists collude to cancel conservatives, tell us to ‘build your own’ social media platforms, and they collude to kill those like they are doing to Parler,” Mr. Davis said. “Big Tech is a clear and present danger to the free market and free speech.”

Much about Parler — the name is the French verb “to speak” — is untraditional. The company was born outside the Silicon Valley pipelines that created the major social media players.

The Parler app went live in 2018 as the brainchild of software engineer John Matze, Parler’s CEO, and conservative donor Rebekah Mercer. The hard launch to attract users coincided with the 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference near Washington.

A Parler representative was scheduled to speak at CPAC, but the company instead opted to work the corridors of power in Washington to attract big-name allies.

On the Tuesday after CPAC weekend, Parler invited Trump administration officials, lawmakers, activists, journalists and others to a private briefing featuring Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, in the Russell Senate Office Building.

The Las Vegas-based company’s outreach to Washington heavyweights put it on conservatives’ radars, but its foothold on the right solidified in the summer. The site had an influx of 100,000 users in one day in June, including high-profile conservatives such as Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, after pro-Trump voice @CarpeDonktum was banned by Twitter and surfaced on Parler.

Parler simultaneously sought to attract liberals but failed miserably.

Parler offered a $20,000 bounty for a blue-check-marked Twitter figure with 50,000 or more followers who identified as a liberal to join Parler. While several users applied, no one met Parler’s terms and the company ended the offer, said Parler Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Wernick.

Unable to make inroads on the left, Parler became the digital refuge for supporters of President Trump who were angry with Facebook and Twitter’s crackdowns on the president and his supporters and news stories that portrayed Joseph R. Biden in a negative light.

Twitter took action against 40 of Mr. Trump’s posts in a seven-day span after the election. Facebook and Twitter restricted the distribution of news stories about foreign business deals by Mr. Biden’s son.

The fallout from Facebook and Twitter’s crackdown drove millions of people to Parler, pushing the app atop Apple’s App Store and the Google Play Store in the days after the election. Approximately 4.5 million users flocked to Parler during the weekend after the November election alone, according to the company.

Parler’s networks were strained, and Mr. Matze, whose growing team numbered approximately 20 staffers last summer, was happy with the headache. Parler had long spoiled for a fight with Big Tech, and it was beginning to make waves.

Mr. Matze’s October prediction that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s social media model “will lose within three years” to Parler had barely registered in the tech community. Facebook said it had 196 million daily active users in the U.S. and Canada during 2020’s third quarter, and Twitter said it had 152 million users in the U.S. during the same time frame.

Still, Parler’s sharp user growth drew attention. It also drew criticism. Liberal opponents of Mr. Trump accused Parler’s users of participating in the riot at the Capitol. The Southern Poverty Law Center labeled Parler a “haven for far-right extremism” and a “haven for recruitment and promotion for the Jan. 6 pro-Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol building.”

Many users in the Parler community were nowhere near the Capitol.

Oklahoma, West Virginia and Wyoming were the states that had the most users relative to their populations, according to a study by Global Wireless Solutions. GWS relied on an opt-in panel of 75,000 to 100,000 consumers that measured Android smartphone users’ mobile app usage and content, network performance and consumer perceptions.

GWS found Parler users are more likely to be White, 45 or older and upper-middle-class (based on college education and a six-figure income) than the national average.

The dominant personality trait among the Parler users was their decision to turn off Fox News. According to GWS data, Parler users spent more time on the NewsMax App than the FoxNews App after Election Day. Before the election, they rarely, if ever, used NewsMax’s app.

Parler is now locking horns with Amazon in federal court and working to get its website fully back online. Parler’s users are still searching for a digital home, but Signal, a secure messaging application, and Telegram, a cloud-based messaging platform, have both reported influxes of users in recent days.

Whether Parler has a next chapter will be determined by who authors the internet’s rules. If the Big Tech companies that deleted Parler remain in charge, then prospects for the company’s return in its previous form look dim. If lawmakers and regulators intervene to write new guidelines, Parler may need to play by a different set of rules before getting back onto the field.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, New York Democrat and chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, has requested that the FBI investigate Parler and any role it may have played in the riot at the Capitol.

• Ryan Lovelace can be reached at rlovelace@washingtontimes.com.

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