After weeks of controversy surrounding Shopify’s decision to host the online store of Breitbart News, CEO Tobias Lütke wrote an open letter last week defending his position. But the letter hasn’t put the issue to rest. A petition calling for Shopify to end its relationship with Breitbart that had roughly 23,000 signatures last week now has more than 82,000 names attached to it, and at least a few merchants have abandoned the platform.
In his letter, Lütke argued that severing ties with Breitbart, the alt-right publication formerly operated by Stephen Bannon, U.S. President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, would amount to “blocking out voices” and curbing free speech. “Instead of imposing our own morality on the platform, we defer to the law,” Lütke wrote. “All products must be legal in the jurisdiction of the business.” His intention is for Shopify to adopt a “neutral stance” when it comes to the company’s merchants.
Shopify’s terms of service state the company can remove shops it determines are “unlawful, offensive, threatening, libelous, defamatory, pornographic, obscene or otherwise objectionable.” Breitbart, meanwhile, has been criticized for having anti-immigrant, sexist and xenophobic views. (Sample headline: “Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy.”) Breitbart’s online store sells branded merchandise, including clothing with a mock logo for the “Border Wall Construction Co.”
“[Shopify has] terms of service that says they will shut down a shop if it’s offensive. They’re just choosing not to enforce that in this case,” says Samuel Killermann, a public speaker and “social justice comedian” who was set to launch his Shopify store last week, but opted out after reading both Lütke’s open letter and Shopify’s terms of service. “That was the breaking point for me.”
Canadian artist Sarah Lazarovic used Shopify as a platform to sell her prints, but also shut down her shop last week. “The letter was kind of the final straw,” Lazarovic says. “It was such a weird justification. You can support free speech and still choose personally not to facilitate spreading hate.” (She adds the decision to shut down her store was simple since it’s not her main source of income. “I don’t know what I would do if my whole business was a Shopify store,” she says.)
Saadia Muzaffar, founder of Tech Girls Canada, says the issue isn’t about free speech, and that as a public company, Shopify is not obligated or even expected to uphold the concept. Further, she says Shopify cannot claim to be a neutral platform when it has already taken issue with pornographic content, according to its terms of service. “The moment you disallow any one kind of company, you are taking a position. You are saying that your platform will choose to do business with certain types of vendors and not others,” Muzaffar says. “What it comes down to is, this is a choice.”
Muzaffar says Lütke’s choice is an affront to women, people of colour, gender non-conforming people, and other minorities who work with or at Shopify. “Breitbart is directly affecting their day-to-day realities. It’s not just opinions,” she says. “[Shopify] has invested so much in creating a culture where people feel at home. But to me, it sounds like their leadership does not have the wherewithal to zoom out and say, ‘Maybe our position is faulty. Maybe we need to hear the people who are saying this is very problematic.’”
Muzaffar is one of at least three people who have cancelled their speaking engagements for Women in Tech Week in Toronto later this month, an initiative that Shopify sponsors. “I can’t support their official stance on this matter,” she says. “This is an illustration of standing by our values despite its cost. We are asking Shopify to exhibit the same compass.”
Shopify, which hosts more then 325,000 merchants, did not respond to a question about how many businesses have left the platform as a result of the Breitbart controversy. Also among the merchants who use Shopify is Milo Yiannopoulos, an alt-right commentator and star writer for Breitbart. A “Goodbye Illegals” T-shirt featuring a drawing of a man in a sombrero can be purchased from Yiannopoulos’s online store for $24.95. The shop also uses the tagline, “Muslims suck, our shirts don’t.” Shopify did not respond to a question about whether it was comfortable hosting a merchant using that phrase, and instead sent a link to the company’s statement on remaining a neutral platform.
As for Killermann, he’s set to launch his shop with open-source WordPress add-on WooCommerce. “There are so many services out there, it’s kind of overwhelming,” he says. “It’s hard to find anything definitive on where companies would land on this issue when push comes to shove,” he adds. “If it comes down to it, and WooCommerce takes the same stance that Shopify does, we’ll be ready to pack it all up and move somewhere else.”
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