WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — Parler's future remains uncertain even as it came back online this weekend after being shut down by major technology companies in the wake of the attack on the U.S. Capitol.
On Saturday, a week after Amazon Web Services said it was booting Parler from the internet, the company's founder and CEO launched a static page that read, "Hello world, is this thing on?"
According to reports, Parler secured Epik as its domain registrar and appears to have found a web host to replace Amazon Web Services. Epik also hosts the conservative social media site Gab and previously hosted "alt-right" extremist sites the Daily Stormer and 8chan before they were shut down.
It was a small victory for Parler looking to claw its way back from obscurity. In an interview Sunday night with Fox News, Parler CEO John Matze said he was "confident" the site would be back online by the end of the month.
It may be too little too late. Parler has struggled to find a web host after Amazon, Apple and Google cut off ties with Parler citing its inability or unwillingness to police violent, incendiary or threatening content on its platform.
Reports have come out tying Parler users to the violent insurrection on Capitol Hill. In a letter leaked to the media, Amazon cited 98 examples of posts that "clearly encourage and incite violence," including specific threats of rape, torture and assassination of government officials, racial and ethnic groups and private citizens.
While Amazon, Apple, Google and others voiced concerns that Parler had become a breeding ground for extremism, Parler argued that it was the target of a "coordinated attack" by Big Tech companies conspiring to stomp out a new, fast-rising competitor.
In a lawsuit filed last week, Parler accused Amazon of violating antitrust laws and terminating the social media platform out of "political animus." Parler claimed that AWS gave preferential treatment to Twitter, continuing to provide web services even after users made violent threats, including allowing "#hangmikepence" to appear in its trending hashtags.
Amazon defended its decision not to suspend Twitter, noting it does not host Twitter's feed and the social media giant removed the hashtag independently shortly after it started to trend.
The lawsuit could prove challenging. Parler would have to prove that Amazon and Twitter conspired together to eliminate Parler as a competitor. Or it would have to prove a profit motive behind the shutting down the conservative social media site. Additionally, Amazon is protected under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which allows service providers to remove content it deems offensive or improper.
For Parler, which accrued over 12 million users since its launch in 2018, Amazon's actions represented a "death blow."
Matze said he could not find a vendor to host his platform after Amazon, Apple and Google went public with their concerns. The company's SMS provider canceled its contract with Parler and American Express stopped processing payments for the site, citing Amazon's decision.
"About every vendor you can think of under the sun has been shutting us off slowly and they're all citing the harsh words of Amazon and Apple," Matze told Fox New's Mark Levine. "This was, in my opinion, intended to inflict maximum damage on Parler itself."
According to Matze, the shutdown was sudden. Amazon, Apple and Google gave "no indication" they had a problem with the app or Parler's adherence to their terms of service until they pulled it offline last weekend.
Epik, who agreed to be Parler's domain registrar, issued a statement last week denying having discussions with Parler while attacking Big Tech's "double standard" for policing and enforcing incendiary content.
"In terms of the eagerness by some to call for mass deplatforming and universal cancellations, it is becoming increasingly easy to demonize anyone who has different beliefs," Epik wrote. "Without smarter discernment outside of a mob-based judgment of instant convenience, the decisions we make now may ultimately be utilized to reduce liberties that many take for granted."
Even if Parler is back online by the end of the month, it could be difficult for them to recover from being blacklisted by some of the world's largest companies over concerns about extremism.
"I have to think it's the end for Parler. It's just too big a hit at a crucial stage of their growth," said Cliff Lampe, a professor at the University of Michigan's School of Information.
Parler expanded rapidly after the election and hit the No. 1 spot in Apple's App Store before it was taken offline. After Twitter announced it was suspending President Donald Trump's account permanently, rumors swirled that Trump might turn to Parler. In a matter of days, Parler saw app downloads increase more than threefold.
Now, those former users are likely to look for other outlets. "Some will go back to Facebook and complain about it. I think a lot of the more radicalized groups are heading to Signal and Telegram, which are encrypted and offer smaller group exchanges," Lampe said.
Some conservatives have viewed the takedown of Parler as proof of political bias among major tech firms and an attempt to censor certain voices. However, those companies are understood to be within their First Amendment rights. They have no obligation to host a platform that they believe is enabling violent insurrection. Nothing in the First Amendment suggests that Amazon or Google "shall make no laws" abridging the freedom of speech.
At the same time, there is an overriding concern among people across the political spectrum about how much power Big Tech has over what is said and what is seen online.
"On the one hand, I think we need to be OK with the decisions they've made of late but still be concerned that they have too much gatekeeping power," said Philip Napoli, a professor of public policy at the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at Duke University.
At the moment, the concerns about preventing domestic extremism or another attack around the inauguration appear more compelling. "We are witnessing not only Amazon but corporate America take steps that in many ways are unprecedented on the basis of the unprecedented actions we witnessed on Jan. 6," Napoli said. In response, he said, private companies and social media moderators are having to ask themselves, "What are the appropriate actions to take in response to an attempted overthrow of the government? "
The answer so far has been to demand increased content moderation, as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have done. Parler said it moderates flagged content through a "jury system." It's unclear if Parler has the tools available to detect and remove violent, hateful or pornographic content or if it intends to allow it to proliferate as a matter of "free speech." Matze has said he does not allow illegal activity on the platform, including violent incitement.
The conservative social media landscape is expected to shift in the coming years and there is ample speculation about what role Trump will play in shaping it. Trump has reportedly mused about starting his own social media company after feuding with and ultimately being banned by Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. He is also reportedly considering a digital media platform.
With a loyal political base and the influence of an ex-president, Trump would be guaranteed tens of millions of followers.