Should Shopify dump Breitbart? Where should vendors draw the line?

Breitbart store

Shopify, a commerce platform, supports thousands of online stores, including Breitbart’s. Tens of thousands of people have called on the company to dump the alt-right site, but Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke says anyone who isn’t breaking the law can use his platform. I agree with his position.

As I previously wrote, the boycott war has descended into madness. For example, when Nordstrom refused to give up Ivanka Trump merchandise, liberals said we should boycott it; when it later dumped Ivanka’s line for poor sales, conservatives put it in the crosshairs. Breitbart, which publishes inflammatory “news” and commentary (“Smugglers use children to hide 500K worth of cocaine, says Texas sheriff“) from the likes of the repellent Milo Yiannopoulos, is at the center of the conflict. Kellogg’s stopped advertising on Breitbart; Breitbart called on its people to boycott Kellogg’s.

My problem here is that if you protest not only what you hate, but anyone who does business with anyone that you hate, you divide the world into two warring camps. And that’s the challenge with Shopify.

Shopify’s Tobias Lütke defends his decision

In a post on Medium called “In support of free speech,” Lütke’s defends his position. He hates Breitbart but won’t impose his values on his customers. Highlights:

Shopify powers the online stores of hundreds of thousands of businesses in the world. One of those is the store for Breitbart, a controversial right-wing website. This post is about why we have not kicked them off.

Shopify is an unlikely defender of Breitbart’s right to sell products. I’m a liberally minded immigrant, leading a predominantly liberal workforce, hailing from predominantly liberal cities and countries. I’m against exclusion of any kind — whether that’s restricting people from Muslim-majority nations from entering the US, or kicking merchants off our platform if they’re operating within the law.

Commerce is a powerful, underestimated form of expression. We use it to cast a vote with every product we buy. 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.

To kick off a merchant is to censor ideas and interfere with the free exchange of products at the core of commerce. When we kick off a merchant, we’re asserting our own moral code as the superior one. But who gets to define that moral code? Where would it begin and end? Who gets to decide what can be sold and what can’t? If we start blocking out voices, we would fall short of our goals as a company to make commerce better for everyone. Instead, we would have a biased and diminished platform.

He follows this up with an FAQ that makes the point completely clear:

Are there limits to what you would host?

Instead of imposing our own morality on the platform, we defer to the law. All products must be legal in the jurisdiction of the business.

What exact role does Shopify play?

We offer a software service in the form of an ecommerce platform which hundreds of thousands of businesses and entrepreneurs use to sell millions of products online. We are a service provider. We do not, and will not, refuse the Shopify service to anyone based on their political views, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc. Doing so could set a dangerous precedent of exclusion.

Disagree with Shopify? You’re going down a dangerous path

Let’s imagine that, like Shopify’s critics, we decide to hold other businesses to account on the question of working with Breitbart. And let’s assume that we, and those critics, get our way. Here’s the endpoint of our thought experiment:

  • Shopify ceases to support Breitbart’s online store.
  • Microsoft refuses to sell Breitbart software. The company can’t use Word or PowerPoint.
  • They can’t buy Macs or iPhones, because Apple won’t sell to them.
  • They can’t buy anything on Amazon.
  • Google stops working with Breitbart. All its employees lose their Gmail accounts, can’t use Google Maps of Waze to get places, and can’t do searches on Google.
  • FedEx stops delivering packages to Breitbart or picking up its packages to deliver to others.
  • AT&T and Verizon won’t allow Breitbart to use them as mobile carriers.
  • Breitbart’s Web host cuts it off.
  • Breitbart’s domain registrar kicks it off. It has to find some other registrar to register

If you hate Breitbart, this looks like your dream come true. They’ll have lots of trouble doing business. They’ll have to find right-wing tolerant software providers, package delivery services, hosts, and registrars. Maybe you’ll kill them. Awesome!

Who should we target next? Should we stop delivering packages to hobbyists from Hobby Lobby stores? Should we take down Neil Gorsuch’s email service and mobile phone? How about the Republican party? Maybe we should tell software companies to stop serving all Republicans. (Except maybe a few moderates like Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker and Senator Susan Collins, but everybody else, we boycott.) If a company keeps working with Republicans, we’ll boycott them!

Just one little detail: who gets to draw the lines? Who decides which person or company gets put on the island next?

Of course, there are organizations that conservatives hate as much as liberals hate Breitbart. Take Planned Parenthood. If we extend the argument the other way, we’d have package delivery services refusing to deliver medications to Planned Parenthood and their website would be gone. And imagine how effective it would be if a pregnant person searching “abortion providers” couldn’t find any, because Google had blocked the search. Conservatives wouldn’t need to pass legislation or win court decisions, they could just twist the arms of anyone doing ordinary commerce with an abortion provider.

I prefer to fight for freedom, not for who controls the levers of authoritarianism

Just like Tobias Lütke, I hate what Breitbart stands for. And Lütke, I think they should be able to buy things and use things, until they actually break the law. Commerce, like speech, is a battle for the mind of consumers and voters.

There is such a thing as hate speech. That’s what got Milo Yiannopoulos kicked off Twitter. Breitbart has not violated hate speech laws, although it comes up to the line. It’s unpleasant, but legal.

Breitbart sells some nasty items on its site, but they’re not illegal — they’re sort of silly, actually. If the were selling swastika T-shirts, I have no doubt that Shopify would shut them down, but they’re not. It’s T-shirts that say “Border Wall Construction Company” and bumper stickers like the one at the top of this post.

The real challenge is not to try to kick Breitbart and anyone who would do business with it off the Internet. It’s to help as many people as possible to see reason. The tools for that are words and speech. If liberals and moderates can’t win the battle with words and speech — especially against anyone as inconsistent and transparently dissembling as the Trump administration — we’re lost. Insisting that vendors cease to work with the Breitbarts of the world is not the way forward. Revealing the bankruptcy of their arguments is.

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  1. Good points.

    I’m tired of the way the country seems to be dividing into warring camps. Instead of voting people off the island, we need to talk to them.

  2. Luke writes: “To kick off a merchant is to censor ideas and interfere with the free exchange of products at the core of commerce.”

    Wrong. It’s censorship if the government does it. When a private entity declines to give a platform to speech it disagrees with, it is not censorship. It is the “marketplace of ideas” at work.

    Those who boycott are also expressing their ideas; their disagreement; their protest. Peacefully.

    1. “While Tobias Lütke is still with Shopify as the CEO, the company has been publicly traded since April 2015, when they filed for an initial public offering on both the New York Stock Exchange and the Toronto Stock Exchange.”

      If the word PRIVATE means anything, it would certainly mean NOT publicly traded. Corporations by definition means a partnership with “government” institutions. And if you don’t think “government” folks involve themselves in the activities of platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and, yes, Shopify, you are not apprised of the facts.

  3. In The Open Society and Its Enemies, philosopher Karl Popper described this as “the paradox of tolerance.” Here is how he put it:
    Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right even to suppress them, for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to anything as deceptive as rational argument, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, exactly as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping; or as we should consider incitement to the revival of the slave trade.
    Popper’s words are (unfortunately) highly relevant to our current situation.

    1. I don’t agree with this. But even if I did, I wouldn’t hold a commerce provider to this standard. First off, Breitbart, nasty as it is, is not hate speech. Secondly, even if you feel what they say is intolerant, what they are selling is innocuous. And finally, who gets to draw the line, and where?

      Its a judgment call. While I respect your judgment, it’s different from mine.

    2. Hmm, was Popper talking about organizations like Breitbart, or like Islam? A lot of people know from their daily lives EXACTLY what Popper means. If you value women’s rights, gay rights, minority rights, freedom of speech, and even basic justice instead of a koranic kangaroo court, you should be very concerned. Popper is extremely relevant. A lot of people have the same gut feeling, even if they don’t know Popper’s name.