How Content Moderation Turned Into a Game of Hot Potato
App stores and cloud hosting platforms want the right to ban content without the responsibility of moderation
When app stores and cloud hosting platforms banned Parler earlier this month after the self-described “free speech” social network failed to moderate calls for violence, they set a new precedent. Previously, the conventional wisdom was that developers bore the responsibility of policing an app’s community. After all, the developer is in the best position to know what its users need, what they’re up to, and how to build the specific moderation tools that work best for its community.
But with the Parler bans, companies that hosted the app — in an app store, on web hosting, or in a domain registrar — asserted a say over whether the community within the app was being moderated effectively.
While major social networks like YouTube and Facebook have at least attempted to spell out exactly what content is allowed, moderation by these host companies is largely nonexistent, even as they reserve the right to ban their users.
Apple gave Parler an ultimatum: Come back with a plan to moderate your community or be removed from the App Store. This policy might explain why Facebook, which has also been used to facilitate real-world violence, gets to stay, while Parler, which actively pitches itself as a platform for “free speech” where almost anything goes, doesn’t. While examples of illegal or violent activities can be found on both platforms, Parler’s posture of pushing back against moderation put it at odds with Apple’s policies. This put Apple (as well as Google, Amazon, and others) in the awkward position of deciding whether an app is moderating its community properly on a somewhat arbitrary basis.
Platforms could alleviate that confusion by both clarifying their platform guidelines and providing tools to help developers conform to them. Apple has requirements for apps. In many cases, the company also provides tools and best practices to make it easier for developers to comply with those rules. Apps are required to follow certain privacy guidelines, for example, so Apple includes a robust permissions system. However, Apple doesn’t offer similar tools for…