Unbeknownst to the public, last Friday began the unfortunate next chapter for Parler’s Founder, now former-CEO John Matze. Yesterday, Matze announced that on January 29th the board of Parler sent communications to its employees that he no longer held the position of CEO. News, that may not have been all that surprising to listeners of his interview with Kara Swisher on the afternoon that insurrectionists stormed the Capitol.
What CEO John Matze was attempting to accomplish when he agreed to an interview with Kara Swisher that afternoon is still unclear – but he probably didn’t intend to get his app de-platformed at the height of its popularity. Unfortunately, a lot of people saw that as exactly what he did. Apple’s threat to remove Parler from their App Store and Amazon’s suspension notice both cited Matze’s interview, with him stating “he held no responsibility for any of this [Capitol Riots,]” as the reason for the site’s removal from their store and servers respectively.
From their developers, Apple and Amazon require not only an intent to moderate but a plan to remove people once infractions occur. And with Matze saying during their interview that he didn’t share those guidelines and Parler’s only hard rule was against doxxing, both companies felt that his attitude on freedom of speech was too laissez-faire for them. Ironically, in his memo to the staff Matze claimed the board of Parler removed him because he “advocated for more product stability and what he believed was a more effective approach to content moderation,” despite Kara Swisher asking him numerous times what his ultimate moderation goals were and responding that Parler was simply going to follow the law, “if it’s legal, it’s allowed.” Going on to say “we’re a neutral town square that just adheres to the law” seemingly misunderstanding, again, that the first amendment protects him from censorship by the United States Government, and has nothing to do with the User Licensing Agreements he agreed to when signing a contract with Apple and Amazon.
In a real town square, he would be allowed to host all the hate-filled speech that he wanted, but online, if it falls outside of the hosting company’s guidelines – that company is fully within their right to kick him out. A fact that at least his lawyers understood when filing their lawsuit against AWS, choosing to argue instead that the “attack” was a personal attempt to take them down, in anticipation of AWS’ new contract to host Twitter (thus asking the court to restrain their suspension so that they could move their platform to another service provider.) Unfortunately for Parler, and ultimately John Matze, their requested injunction was denied. Judge Barbara Rothstein argued that “even after the attack on the U.S. Capitol the company decided not to take down posts threatening public safety” that it was “within Amazon’s rights to punish the company over its refusal.”
In retrospect, onlookers may pause to say that the board’s decision was impulsive – that the 27-year-old founder / CEO deserves the room and time to make mistakes – and in some aspects, I agree. If his only mistake was to unintentionally run afoul of guidelines put in place by the site’s hosts and owners of the stores he needs to reach potential customers – fine. But his mistake wasn’t that he broke the rules. His mistake, and I’m not even sure it can be called that, is that he lacks any understanding of how his management of the company landed them in the position they’re currently in. Following his firing, he continued to say he didn’t understand why he was let go, that his vision was “pretty aligned” with what the board wanted and that there was no way the unprecedented removal from Amazon’s Servers could be blamed on him. He argued that, following their removal from the three platforms (saying nothing of the Capitol Riots), he thought they should design a way to keep free speech at the center of their platform while using “authoritative” A.I. and software to proactively flag content (rather than letting humans flag it, as the site had previously done.) and then have a jury check it if there were any complaints. While his inability to see the role he played in all of this borders on delusion, I believe what ultimately cost him his job was his patent naivete when it came to content moderation. When you market yourself as a free-speech haven, there’s going to be more vile content than there are jurors to oversee the appeal process. His vision for the platform could not scale, and he was unwilling to do it any other way.