Parler Pitched Itself as Twitter Without Rules. Not Anymore, Apple and Google Said.

Google and Apple told Parler, a social network popular with far-right conservatives, that it must better police its users if it wants a place in their app stores.

Apple threatened to remove Parler from its App Store if it did not regulate its content. 
Apple threatened to remove Parler from its App Store if it did not regulate its content. Credit...Mark Lennihan/Associated Press
Jack Nicas

Parler is one of the hottest apps in the world, a social network that has attracted millions of far-right conservatives over the past year with its hands-off approach to policing users’ posts. And with the news that President Trump had been kicked off Twitter and Facebook, Parler was the odds-on bet to be his next soapbox.

But just as it has been gaining new clout, Parler is now suddenly faced with an existential crisis.

On Friday, Apple told the company that it had to step up its policing of the conversation on its app — undercutting its flagship feature — or lose its platform on iPhones. Several hours later, Google suspended Parler from the Play Store, the main way to download apps on Android devices, until it better polices its app.

In an email to Parler, Apple said it had received complaints that people used the Parler app, which mimics Twitter, to plan Wednesday’s deadly riot in Washington. Apple said it had determined that Parler was not “removing content that encourages illegal activity and poses a serious risk to the health and safety of users.”

A day earlier, John Matze, Parler’s chief executive, had said in an interview with The Times about Wednesday’s melee that he didn’t “feel responsible for any of this and neither should the platform, considering we’re a neutral town square that just adheres to the law.”

In its letter, Apple referenced his stance and added, “We want to be clear that Parler is in fact responsible for all the user generated content present on your service and for ensuring that this content meets App Store requirements for the safety and protection of our users.”

Apple gave Parler 24 hours to comply before the app would be removed from Apple’s App Store.

Google said in a statement that it had pulled the app because Parler was not enforcing its own moderation policies, despite a recent reminder from Google, and because of continued posts on the app that sought to incite violence.

“We recognize that there can be reasonable debate about content policies and that it can be difficult for apps to immediately remove all violative content, but for us to distribute an app through Google Play, we do require that apps implement robust moderation for egregious content,” Google said.

BuzzFeed News previously reported Apple’s email to Parler.

Parler did not respond to a request for comment. Mr. Matze told The Wall Street Journal on Friday that he was confident that “we can retain our values and make Apple happy quickly.”

The edicts from Apple and Google were a stark illustration of the power of the largest tech companies to influence what is allowed on the internet, even on sites and apps that are not their own. The moves were also likely to inflame anger among those on the right who believe that Silicon Valley is muzzling conservative voices, particularly when paired with a series of other actions by tech companies against Mr. Trump and his supporters since Wednesday.

In the eyes of many of Mr. Trump’s supporters, Parler was a safe haven from so-called Big Tech censorship — a place where they could espouse conspiracy theories, make threats and even plan violent rallies without worrying about getting banned. It had been one of the most downloaded apps in recent months just as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram increasingly cracked down on hate speech and misinformation.

But it is now clear that Parler will not be able to maintain its free-for-all status if it wants to be able to keep its wide reach. Apple and Google make the operating systems that back nearly every smartphone in the world, and they roughly split the market in the United States.

If Apple pulls Parler from the App Store, people would not be able to download the app to their iPhones or iPads. People who had already downloaded the Parler iPhone app would still be able to use it, but the company would not be able to update the app, meaning it would eventually be rendered obsolete as Apple updated the iPhone software.

Google’s suspension is problematic for Parler, but people with Android devices will still be able to get the app, just with a bit more work. Google allows other app marketplaces on Android, and its decision applies only to its flagship Play Store.

And people will also still be able to use Parler via web browsers on their phones or computers.

Parler’s app has been downloaded more than 10 million times on iPhones and Android devices, with more than 80 percent of the downloads in the United States, according to Sensor Tower, an app data firm. On Thursday, the day after the riot in Washington, people downloaded Parler 39,000 times, more than twice as much as the day prior.

That success had put Parler in the pole position among a number of social-media upstarts trying to attract people on the far right who were fed up with the actions of the tech companies or who had been banned themselves from the mainstream platforms.

Parler quickly drew some of the biggest names. Upon signing up for an account, Parler prompted new users to follow people like Sean Hannity, the Fox News pundit, and Phil Robertson, star of the reality television series “Duck Dynasty.”

Parler had a major advantage: money. Rebekah Mercer, one of Mr. Trump's largest donors and an investor in Breitbart, said on Parler in November that she had started the company with Mr. Matze, a self-described libertarian, “to provide a neutral platform for free speech, as our founders intended.”

After Twitter announced it had banned Mr. Trump on Friday, he posted a message under the official Twitter account for the U.S. president that said his team had been “negotiating with various other sites, and will have a big announcement soon, while we also look at the possibilities of building out our own platform in the near future.” He added, “We will not be SILENCED!”

The notion of Mr. Trump’s starting his own platform suggested that Silicon Valley’s struggles with the president could be far from over. Apple and Google’s stance of ensuring that social-media apps are enforcing their rules could set the companies up for a series of fights as the president’s supporters search for a new digital gathering place.

While explaining their decisions on Friday, Apple and Google shared images of posts on Parler that they said had crossed the line. They included a post from Lin Wood, the defamation lawyer who sued to overturn Mr. Trump’s election loss, that said Vice President Mike Pence should be executed for not helping the fight to overturn the election results. The post was shared thousands of times.

Another post they cited said 20 coordinated assassinations were all that would be needed to “take back our country.” It had been shared nearly 200 times and stayed up for at least two days.

“If people are breaking the law, violating our terms of service, or doing anything illegal, we would definitely get involved,” Mr. Matze told The Times this week. “But, you know, for the most part, I haven’t seen a whole lot of illegal activity.”