In Support of Free Speech (Update) August 13 2018
In February 2017, I wrote a post on Medium (reproduced below) explaining Shopify’s position as a platform without restriction. While I stand by the philosophy of the post, an excellent argument has emerged that has helped evolve the company’s position.
Solely deferring to the law, in this age of political gridlock, is too idealistic and functionally unworkable on the fast moving internet.
The legislative process is no match for the realities of the internet and has ground to a halt on contentious issues. Some of those issues, such as hateful content, remain legally undefined. Others are legally addressed for a physical world, but pose different and more complicated risks on the internet. So we have found ourselves in a position of having to make our own decisions on some of these issues. And along the way we had to accept that neutrality is not a possibility.
We addressed this vacuum by creating a carefully crafted Acceptable Use Policy which allows space for all types of products, even the ones that we disagree with, but not for the kind of products intended to harm.
We reserve the right to wake up smarter every day. And therefore Shopify will have to make decisions based on judgement when there is not a black and white, or even existing, legal solution.
In Support of Free Speech (Medium 2017)
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’s position doesn’t fit into a tweet. Reality doesn’t fit into 140 characters. The reasons we are continuing to host them are nuanced and require thought. It would be easy to kick off merchants we don’t like, and doing so would actually make our lives significantly easier. If you want to understand us, please read the entire post.
“I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so.”
— Barack Obama
This is what my inbox looks like as I write this. I have now received more than 10,000 emails, tweets, and messages saying the same thing: stop hosting Breitbart’s online store. Shopify employees are facing similar pressure.
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.
People sell millions of products a day. Almost all of those are uncontroversial. We love the electric skateboards, the animal-friendly outerwear, and the pottery. But some are unsavory and controversial, and that’s where we’re put to the test.
On a regular basis, we face pressure from groups who disagree with some of these merchants or products and want us to censor them. This has been a constant for as long as we’ve been around.
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.
Products are a form of speech, and free speech must be fiercely protected, even if we disagree with some of the voices. Our view is consistent with the position of the ACLU, an organization that we agree with.
Over the years, the ACLU has frequently represented or defended individuals engaged in some truly offensive speech. We have defended the speech rights of communists, Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, accused terrorists, pornographers, anti-LGBT activists, and flag burners. That’s because the defense of freedom of speech is most necessary when the message is one most people find repulsive. Constitutional rights must apply to even the most unpopular groups if they’re going to be preserved for everyone.
On November 8th, the day of the US election, the whole world got more black and white. People in the center have been called upon to choose sides. In a way, my position is an appeal to preserve some of the gray in the world. All solutions necessarily have to come from the middle ground. No progress happens when ideas are censored and everyone sorts into one of two camps. The world is a nuanced and complicated place. Let’s accept that and use rational discourse to make the world — and commerce — better for everyone.
There’s been a lot of inaccurate information circulating about us, so here are the facts:
Why does Shopify host stores like Breitbart?
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. That being said, if Breitbart calls us tomorrow and tells us that they are going to switch to another platform, we would be delighted.
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.
Does Shopify advertise on Breitbart’s website?
No, we do not advertise on Breitbart. Breitbart uses Google Adsense to earn income through advertising, and while we do use Google to buy such ads, we specifically instructed Google to not allow any Shopify ads on their site. This has been in place for months.
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.
Does Shopify sell Breitbart’s products?
We offer a platform which allows businesses and entrepreneurs to sell products. We do not sell products on any merchant’s behalf.
Do you endorse Breitbart or their products?
No. Just as Facebook and Twitter do not endorse the views expressed on their platforms, using Shopify does not come with an endorsement. In the last election both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump used our platform to sell merchandise, as did Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz. To reinforce our neutral stance, Shopify (unlike many other companies) has not, and will not, donate money to the Republican, Democratic, or any other political party.