Putin's Parler: How the far-right social media platform's move to Russian servers exposes its users to mass surveillance and severely restricted speech

Parler is going to Russia.

It's not quite the story of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but the far-right cesspool and social media app Parler is moving its service to servers in the Russian federation. In light of the domestic terrorist attack on the US Capitol on January 6, Google, Apple, and Amazon had terminated their services to Parler because of Parler's unwillingness to actively monitor and remove violent, incendiary, hateful rhetoric from its platform. Parler CEO John Matze decried "big tech" for kicking it to the curb and vowed, Terminator-style, that he'd be back.

And he is. Kind of.

Parler's website is back up with a message from Matze, who started Parler shortly after marrying a Russian national visiting the US, but no other functionality, Reuters reports, and the new Parler's backbone is being provided by DDoS-Guard, a Russian hosting provider.

But Matze's new Russian benefactors may pose a problem to his marketing message.

Parler is sold to its users as a platform where "privacy is paramount and free speech essential," and in the Russian Federation - as well as under the agreements one is required sign to get service from this particular Russian firm - neither is allowed. In addition to that, by hosting the service in a foreign country that just hacked US government servers, Parler is willingly subjecting its users to both Russian and US surveillance.

According to Matze's own previous statements, Parler requires 300-500 dedicated servers, and DDoS-Guard does not host any dedicated servers in the United States. For dedicated servers, DDoS-Guard's service terms directly regulate permissible content on the websites it hosts, and among those terms are explicit bans on hate speech, incitement, and even trolling. As if that weren't ironic enough, Item 6.5.2 of the terms specifically bans "content which constitutes a criminal attack or gives rise to any crimes or civil riots." Oops.

But assume for a moment that, despite being even more restrictive on content moderation than Amazon Web Services (Parler's last host), DDoS does not plan on enforcing its terms against Parler, since the whole point of ParleRussia is to protect it from civil society in the United States under the protection of the Russian state.

That, however, won't protect Parler and its users from surveillance and confiscation of personal information by the Russian authorities themselves. Although self-proclaimed defenders of civil liberties keep fleeing to Vladimir Putin's loving arms, it remains a fact that privacy from the government does not exist in the Russian Federation. Last June, a report on Russia's Internet crackdown by Human Rights Watch noted the following (emphasis mine):

In July 2018, amendments to existing counterterrorism legislation entered into force that require telecommunications and internet companies registered with Russian authorities as “information dissemination organizers,” for example, messenger apps and social media, to store and share information about users without a court order.

The Russian government also forces technology companies and internet service providers to build in a backdoor that Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) and other government agencies can access with zero checks and balances. The report from Human Rights Watch noted that "FSB [has] automatic access to their information systems and encryption keys to decrypt user communications without authorization through any judicial process."

If that isn't the land of the free, I don't know what is.

But the Russian authorities may not be the only ones Paerlerphiles may need to worry about. Given that Parler is no longer hosted on a US server, the United States can now deploy certain foreign intelligence capacities and economic measures against ParleRussia that could not be deployed against domestic hosts.

There's a reason that almost half of the world's web infrastructure is hosted in the United States: servers located in the United States enjoy greater privacy protections under US law. The government needs a warrant to even inquire into a server located in the United States, but as established in United States v Ross Ulbricht in 2014, US Intelligence can break into a foreign server during a criminal investigation (or to stop criminal activity) without the need for a warrant, even if the suspected criminal activity is being conducted by a US person.

I wonder if the US could come up with a national security justification to break into Russian companies and assets after it has attacked US elections and US government assets.

It should also be noted that US companies - including Internet Service Providers - may block access to certain foreign websites in order to comply with American economic sanctions against those countries. The US already employs a range of sanctions against Russian businesses and individuals, and the incoming Biden administration's response to the Russian hack of the government is likely to include a range of options, including more economic sanctions, and may well include restrictions on the Russian technology sector. If it does, American ISPs can easily block access to Parler, bringing them back to square one.

So sure, by getting in bed with a Russian service provider, Parler has exposed its own users to restricted speech, mass surveillance, and perhaps even yet another looming disappearance act. But welcome back, I guess.