In the wake of the Capitol riots two weeks ago, a number of large tech companies pulled support for Parler, a Twitter-like social network that Donald Trump’s supporters have increasingly favored since its launch in 2018. Apple and Google removed the Parler app from their digital stores and Amazon Web Services cut the platform’s hosting services. After over a week offline, the site is now partially back up, in the form of a landing page that promises a full return. To get even this far, Parler has hired DDoS-Guard, a Russian digital infrastructure company, to defend it against the endless barrage of attacks that virtually all sites face online—particularly those as controversial as Parler.
DDoS-Guard told WIRED it is only providing defense against denial of service attacks, not hosting Parler’s site. But even that level of support requires access to all the traffic that flows through Parler, so that it can “scrub” out malicious traffic aimed at overwhelming the site. Given the Russian government’s active efforts to isolate the country’s internet and gain access to all data, Parler could expose its users to Russian surveillance if the site someday does relaunch in full with DDoS-Guard.
“Now seems like the right time to remind you all—both lovers and haters—why we started this platform,” Parler’s homepage currently proclaims. “We believe privacy is paramount and free speech essential … We will resolve any challenge before us and plan to welcome all of you back soon.”
Parler’s chief operating officer Jeffrey Wernick told The New York Times on Tuesday that the social network would prefer United States-based providers and is working to find them. The platform register its domain through Seattle-based Epik. But Parler has been shunned by the US tech industry’s biggest names, and purports to have more than 12 million users, making the platform too big for most small hosts. Its domestic options are sparse.
By embracing DDoS-Guard, even as a stopgap, Parler joins a growing list of far-right sites like 8kun (formerly 8chan) and the Daily Stormer that US infrastructure companies have knocked offline, only to see companies in countries with limited internet freedom—like DDoS-Guard—enable their reemergence.
“At this time, Parler.com does not violate either our Acceptable Use Policy or the current US law to the best of our knowledge,” DDoS-Guard said in a statement to WIRED. “DDoS-Guard responsibly keeps customer data without disclosing it to third parties. Moreover, the provider stores only information required for the service and explicitly provided by the customers.”
But Russia has passed laws that compel tech companies to comply with government requests, and has deployed physical network infrastructure to monitor everything from web user IP addresses and communications to location data. Employing Russian infrastructure services could expose a site’s users to the country’s surveillance schemes, says Alp Toker, director of the nonpartisan connectivity tracking group NetBlocks. Most posts on Parler are meant to be public, but the platform also offered a direct messaging feature and numerous types of “verified” accounts, including red badges for anyone who uploads an image of their government identification card. All of this information, as well as granular user activity data and user IP addresses, would potentially be exposed to the Kremlin if Parler returns with those same features while routing its data through Russian servers.
Regardless of where Parler ultimately lands, it seems likely to find a home somewhere. The internet’s decentralized design helps ensure connectivity, but also makes it difficult to keep people or platforms from being silenced. Even repressive governments in countries like Iran and China have struggled with the logistics of fully controlling regional internet.