Parler and the Hidden Politics of Scalability
At The New Stack, we stay away from politics, as much as we’d like to weigh in with our opinions (especially during these last four years). But we recognize what brings the readers and listeners to our table is the stellar information we offer about software development and deployment at scale. Add to this the fact that we enjoy a global audience (our largest readership outside of the U.S. is in India), who may not be interested in the turmoil across our soil, and, in fact, who may have vastly different views than ours. So, other than a few cultural exceptions that we feel are (or should be) universally recognized as benefitting society as a whole (such as increasing the diversity and equality of the IT workplace), in the end, we’ll stick with the technology that unites us.
So, like many others, we watched aghast Jan. 6 when a crowd of radicals beset upon the U.S. Capitol building, at the behest of then-U.S. President Donald Trump. But we didn’t see it as news we should cover, at first. But in fact, there were all sorts of cloud native computing angles hidden amidst the mayhem. In the days following, word leaked out that much of the coordination for this attack was done through a popular right-wing oriented social media service Parler. Apple and Google both quickly pulled Parler from their respective app stores. Amazon Web Services dropped the company as a client in the days after.
This move raised many interesting questions about our growing reliance on the cloud native computing world, issues that will surely resonate in other, hopefully, less toxic, cases in the years to come. Now, Parler is trying to rebuild the service in-house. Well, good luck to that (or, rather, not). Our London correspondent Mary Branscombe asked the question if building a global social networking service in-house is even possible any longer. In other words, do we require the cloud now to offer even mid-sized consumer-oriented services? Putting Parler in a data center would require millions in capital investment, where it has to purchase for peak usage, not just regular usage. The service would also need an army of engineers, developers and SREs to put it together and run it.
Parler also raised interesting questions for the service providers, who were caught between neutrality and “doing the right thing.” As TNS Senior Editor Richard MacManus pointed out in his piece:
The key debate is around whether “big tech” companies like Google, Apple and Amazon should be “acting as regulators” (as tech analyst Benedict Evans put it) and unilaterally shutting down controversial services like Parler. That’s a thorny issue, because it comes down to how much power you think internet companies — and particularly ones that operate down the stack, like AWS — should have.
Another cloud native cautionary tale that emerged about Parler was its terrible security, which, for better or worse, severely compromised the privacy of its users. A hacker who goes by the Twitter handle @donk_enby downloaded every Parler post from Jan. 6 on, publicly exposing death threats and other incendiary information that could be easily traced back to the service’s users. It turned out to be quite easy, in fact. According to a post from our security reporter Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols:
Parler’s API didn’t require authentication. Anyone at any time could have used it to see to all its members’ public content. There was also no data throttling. Once the data started flowing through the API pipeline, the only limit was how fast the server could dish out the information and how fast your internet connection.
Now that the din has subdued somewhat, we’ll return to scoping out the best stories about at-scale technologies. But going forward, we’ll also keep an eye out for how these technologies affect the world at large.