Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke penned an open letter in response to the ongoing barrage of communication being received by himself and other Shopify employees about their continued decision to host the online store of Breitbart, the right-wing publication which regularly publishes racist and sexist headlines and content. Lütke’s argument generally rests on a “free speech” defense, claiming that any attempt to apply a moral lens to what stores operate on Shopify would threaten to “censor” a right to free expression.
Lütke contends that “commerce is a powerful, underestimated form of expression,” and draws a direct parallel between individual purchases made by consumers and votes, and suggests that it’s not Shopify’s place to interrupt that free expression, even if personally and as an organization, they disagree with the positions of those on the platform (Shopify has instructed Google Ads not to display ads on Breitbart.com, as Lütke notes, which means it does not want its brand associated with theirs in that regard).
As some of the critics of Lütke’s letter on Twitter have suggested, this is both a gross overestimation of the role of a commerce platform, and a significant underestimation of the responsibility of a private business to its clients and customers. First, Shopify cannot actually “censor” anything since it’s not a state agency or organization, and is not legally bound to provide a platform to anyone, even if they technically “operate within the law,” as Lütke puts it.
In fact, Shopify’s own terms of service contain the standard declaration that the company reserves the right to “refuse service to anyone for any reason at any time,” and that it also can “modify or terminate the Service for any reason, without notice at any time.” These are the same types of standard legal causes that allow advertisers to terminate arrangements with publications they deem out-of-sync with their brand values.
Lütke also uses the ‘slippery slope’ argument to contend that any decision to remove a merchant based on a moral code is a stepping stone to a situation in which the company can no longer claim to operate on a principle of democratic access to commerce for all, resulting in a “biased and diminished platform.” Again, this is an overreach because the slippery slope argument basically can never hold up to real world use, and private entities and platforms with public reach are always drawing and redrawing the line of what’s acceptable based on factors including corporate values, public response and user reaction.
Perhaps most disconcerting, Lütke uses the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as an example of why Shopify takes this position – he quotes the organization on their own defense of the free speech rights of “communists, Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, accused terrorists, pornographers, anti-LGBT activists, and flag burners” as justification for his company’s stance.
This is wrong: the ACLU defends the state-granted rights of members of those groups to express themselves – which has nothing to do with the ability of the same organizations to profit by their hate speech via commercial offerings. Everyone may have the right to say whatever they want – but luckily, private companies and private individuals have the right to minimize the impact of hateful speech by choosing what to amplify and who to do business with.
Lütke’s mistake is placing Shopify on the wrong side of that equation – he believes his company occupies the same space as inalienable rights to free speech, privacy, pursuit of happiness and safety, but in fact the platform is a boon freely offered above and beyond those rights – and one just as easily rescinded.
On that same side reside individual users and customers, who can choose to do business with companies that reflect their values, or not. Just as Lütke is not bound to protect freedom of expression, but believes his company is doing so, users are not bound to continue supporting a platform that goes against their own beliefs, or that enables profit for a platform that attempts to violate the actual rights of other human beings through hate speech.
Already, Lütke has received a generally negative response on Twitter following the letter’s publication, and that will likely continue. I reached out to Shopify for comment, but it reiterated via a spokesperson that it “supports” free speech and is a “neutral platform.”