As the results of the recent US election continues to make waves, tech companies both south and north of the border have found themselves caught in the wake, including Uber, Tesla, and now Canada’s Shopify.
Over the past few weeks, Shopify has been criticized by those both inside and outside Canada’s tech community for allowing Breitbart to host and sell its merchandise on the platform. A web-based media outlet, Breitbart has gained popularity with far-right conservatives and white nationalists on the back of often tasteless, and sometimes racist or sexist content (some examples: Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy and Young Muslims in the West Are A Ticking Time Bomb, which BetaKit has declined to link to).
Breitbart’s Shopify-powered store is generally a logo-focused collection of tee-shirts, hats, and beer cozies, but does include some items with slogans such as ‘get in line’ or ‘Border Wall Construction Company’.
The calls for Shopify to remove Breitbart from its platform have been significant. A petition with over 20,000 signatures asked the Ottawa-based company to stop hosting Breitbart’s merchandise on its website, while some called for a Shopify boycott. Buzzfeed reports that the company has also faced internal pressure, as employees allegedly wrote a letter to Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke about their concerns, claiming they felt that he was “dismissive.”
Lütke spoke publicly on the matter Wednesday with a Medium post titled In Support of Free Speech. In it, Lütke says he has received over 10,000 emails and tweets about the issue.
“Free speech must be fiercely protected, even if we disagree with some of the voices.”
Lütke writes that Shopify is an unlikely defender of Breitbart’s right to sell products. “Commerce is a powerful, underestimated form of expression. We use it to cast a vote with every product we buy,” Lütke says. “It’s a direct expression of democracy. This is why our mission at Shopify is to protect that form of expression and make it better for everyone, not just for those we agree with.”
Lütke, who was notably among the first Canadian tech leaders to sign the open letter embracing inclusion, goes on to say that the prohibition of merchants is the assertion of Shopify’s own moral code as the superior one. He suggests that this would turn into a slippery slope of decisions on what can be sold and what can’t. Lütke did, however, note that Shopify does not advertise on Breitbart, and that the company did not endorse the views of Breitbart.
“Products are a form of speech, and free speech must be fiercely protected, even if we disagree with some of the voices,” Lütke says. “We don’t like Breitbart, but products are speech and we are pro free speech. This means protecting the right of organizations to use our platform even if they are unpopular, or if we disagree with their premise, as long as they are within the law.”
Like Shopify, other Canadian companies have blocked their ads from appearing on Breitbart, including ecobee and Borrowell.
“Diversity and inclusion are key values for us. We don’t want to display ads on, or have our marketing dollars go towards, sites that run counter to our values,” Andrew Graham, CEO of Borrowell, told BetaKit. Graham also said that when companies are transparent about the fact that they value diversity and inclusion, it provides a competitive advantage in the search for talent.
“Every company has values, whether acknowledged or not. Decisions like who gets hired, what products get built and what partnerships get signed are expressions of values,” said Graham. “So it doesn’t make any sense to say, ‘we’re not going to take moral positions.’ When you’re running a business, you have to. Far better to be clear about your values and to attract employees and partners who share them.”
Graham called Shopify’s approach to this issue a thoughtful one.
“They’ve blocked their ads on Breitbart, like we have, while at the same time being clear that they won’t prevent anyone from using their products, unless it’s breaking the law,” said Graham. “What’s most important for all of us in the tech and business communities is to be aware of where our ad dollars are going and ensure that values align.”