Shopify has resurfaced long-standing criticisms of its company policies after CEO Tobi Lütke shared a message of support for Black communities amid the ongoing protests against racial injustice in the United States.
On Monday, Lütke shared, via Twitter, an internal message he had sent to Shopify employees, lamenting “the sheer injustice” of what is occurring in the US.
“We understand that the problem of racism will not be solved by one action, but we believe that our actions today…is a good step forward.”
The Shopify co-founder also promised donations from Shopify of $500,000 to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, an American legal firm fighting for racial justice; $250,000 to Black Health Alliance a charity working to improve the health of Black people in Canada; and $250,000 to Campaign Zero, which performs research and analysis of policing practices in the US.
“These events show us how imperfect the world is,” Lütke wrote. “No matter the arc of history as it’s taking, there is so much work to be done yet. These things absolutely do not have any space in a company like Shopify. This entire company is a company built around helping people to improve their lot. The equality of opportunity is fundamental to the way we think.”
While many applauded the move, others took to Twitter urging Shopify to ban what they called “white supremacist” organizations that currently use the platform for their online stores.
“[Shopify is] a site that consistently funds white supremacist sites by powering their storefronts,” wrote Raw Signal Group co-founder (and occasional BetaKit contributor) Johnathan Nightingale. “It’s great that you’re giving money to black justice organizations but could you maybe stop bankrolling the white supremacists while you’re at it.”
Jeremy Keith, co-founder of Clearleft, called the statement “hypocrisy.” “That’s some cognitive dissonance when you’re enabling white supremacists while sending company-wide memos about injustice,” he said via Twitter.
Another Twitter user chimed in, “while financial compensation is great – it tends to feel hollow when you’re actively allowing White supremacists to profit.”
I’m not a politician, activist, or frontline worker. My day & night is spent thinking about economic opportunity. In that arena, you have my commitment that I and Shopify will do everything we can to push economic opportunities to black entrepreneurs.
— Tobi Lutke 🌳🌲🛒🕹 (@tobi) June 1, 2020
The criticisms against Shopify are not new, originally surfacing in early 2017. The focus at the time was on Shopify hosting the online store of far-right publication Breitbart, which is known for its popularity amongst white nationalists.
A petition featuring more than 200,000 signatures was delivered to the company, calling for Shopify to stop hosting Breitbart’s merchandise. The company also faced internal pressure regarding the decision, with employees penning a letter to Lütke claiming he had been “dismissive” of their concerns.
Lütke, at the time, released a statement noting that Shopify did not advertise on the site or endorse the views of Breitbart. He said, however, “products are a form of speech, and free speech must be fiercely protected, even if we disagree with some of the voices.”
“We don’t like Breitbart, but products are speech and we are pro free speech,” the CEO added. “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.”
In response to sustained criticism, Shopify updated its policy standards in 2018, banning groups that promote hate or violence from using its platform. The e-commerce giant called the move “[a] proactive measure on our part to ensure we keep our platform free of anyone seeking to promote hate or violence.”
According to Bloomberg reports at the time, the Proud Boys, founded by VICE Media co-founder Gavin McInnes and designated by the Southern Poverty Law Centre in the US as a hate group, were affected by the change and banned.
Shopify funds some good things & there are people working there who I count as friends. They also host Breitbart.
In tech, we are *awful* at talking about this colossal dissonance. Tiptoeing around it does the people protesting for their lives in the streets a huge disservice.
— Chris Adams (@mrchrisadams) June 2, 2020
Breitbart, however, was one organization that was not affected by Shopify’s policy change. In response to Lütke’s statement on Monday, Twitter users, including Raw Signal Group co-founder Melissa Nightingale (and also an occasional BetaKit contributor), pointed out that Breitbart’s online store is still powered by Shopify.
“People in Canadian tech sometimes ask if Shopify is still doing the whole Breitbart thing,” Ms. Nightingale wrote. “For some reason, many folks feel like they aren’t. Let’s be clear tho [sic]…they are.”
Colin Coller, VP of architecture at Vena Solutions and former CTO of Uberflip, expressed online that he was pleased to see Lütke and Shopify’s gesture, stating, “I believe it’s heartfelt, but I’m having trouble squaring this with the Breitbart Store still having ‘Powered by Shopify’ at the bottom.”
Ms. Nightingale also pointed to other online stores that some have called out for having a “heinous line of goods” for attempting to undermine the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement. The store, Piper Lou, had been advertising shirts that read “Drunk Wives Matter.” The merchandise appears to have been since taken down.
In response to questions about whether Shopify plans to ban groups like Breitbart from using its platform, the company told BetaKit it does not comment on individual merchants. A Shopify spokesperson pointed BetaKit to its Acceptable Use Policy, which describes activities that are not permitted on the Shopify platform.
Under the policy, Shopify prohibits a number of activities spanning copyright infringement, child exploitation, and illegal activities. Shopify also prohibits harassment, bullying, defamation and threats; terrorist organizations; and hateful content including the promotion of hate or violence “based on race, ethnicity, color, national origin, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, disability, medical condition, veteran status or other forms of discriminatory intolerance.”
Shopify notes that its services cannot be used to “promote or support organizations, platforms or people that: (i) promote or condone such hate; or (ii) threaten or condone violence to further a cause.”
“Shopify’s mission is to make commerce better for everyone,” the Shopify spokesperson told BetaKit. “We exist to ensure more voices can be heard through entrepreneurship. We understand that the problem of racism will not be solved by one action, but we believe that our actions today along with continuing to have conversations with communities who are directly affected by racism, is a good step forward.”
When reached for comment, the Nightingales referred BetaKit to their public statements on Twitter.
Shopify is not the only major tech company facing backlash amidst the ongoing protests against racial inequality and injustice occurring in both Canada and the US.
On Monday, Facebook employees held a virtual walkout over the company’s refusal to remove posted statements made by Donald Trump that called for violence against protestors. Twitter responded by hiding a similar message behind a warning label.