Shopify this week posted its latest quarterly earnings report. It’s not quite profitable yet, but close. Sales are up, and climbing higher still. The Ottawa-born company, still proudly based in Canada, is now worth more than $5 billion. It could be the nation’s next BlackBerry (we mean this in a good way). Hell, I’m calling it now: Shopify is Canada’s new BlackBerry.
And yet a raucous minority would have you believe Shopify is evil.
In case you are not up to date with the controversy: there’s a right-leaning news site called Breitbart. It’s a little extreme with its pro-Trump sentiments in the same way CNN is extreme with its anti-Trump tirades, but because it’s pro-Trump, it’s the devil incarnate, while CNN is just #FakeNews.
Many organizations, including universities, have taken heat from the left for advertising on Breitbart—even though it’s through Google Ads, which means these companies typically have no idea their ads are appearing on the site. Clearly at least some of their target demographic reads Breitbart, or the ads would appear there. Still, social media crusaders have pressured many companies into removing all ads from Breitbart (not that the news site notices. It’s huge now, and every ad slot is always full).
Then this happened to Shopify. But with Shopify, the angle is considerably more interesting.
Instead of advertising on Breitbart—which Shopify never has—the company is the ecommerce platform on which the news site sells branded goods, like t-shirts with Breitbart’s logo on them. And so a few noisy busybodies have made it their mission to force Shopify to cut ties with Breitbart, for no other reasons than because they perceive Breitbart as pro-Trump (it is) and because they apparently have nothing actually productive to accomplish.
Next chapter: Shopify stands its ground and says no.
While most companies have buckled immediately, Shopify has retained Breitbart as merchant client, despite a petition signed by 131,000 people that claims the ecommerce company is “endorsing hate.” (Because anti-Trump rioters have not said or done anything even remotefuly hateful recently, right guys? No fire-fuelled riots at the inauguration or UC Berkley, correct?) According to emails Shopify has received, Breitbart is run by and for “Neo Nazis.”
Shopify has a sterling reason for keeping Breitbart on board, as explained by founder Tobias Lütke in an open letter published to Medium last week. Here’s what he said. (Short form: free speech, ladies and gentlemen.)
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.
Duh. Of course! But try telling that to the crusaders who cannot see beyond their own self-constructed tunnel vision. Shopify is a company with customers. It should not play God. It knows that. Evidently, they don’t.
In his open letter, Lütke openly admitted to being liberally minded and in no way supported Breitbart’s views. Amazingly, this was still not enough to quell the anger from the raging left. The petition has only grown since; the harassing, hateful emails flooding his inbox around the clock have not slowed.
Shopify says that, ultimately, it just wants to be “neutral.” Somehow this manages to greatly offend many people.
Beyond that, saying Shopify “facilitates spreading hate,” as Canadian artist Sarah Lazarovic put it after ditching the ecommerce paltform, is a ludicrous statement. The company is not parading around, yelling at the world to buy things on Breitbart. The news site is simply a merchant utilizing the platform in a perfectly normal manner. If not Shopify, Breitbart would go elsewhere. It’s not like the news site will crumble because Shopify turns its back.
Let’s all just bite off our noses to spite our faces, shall we?
Looking at poor Lütke’s inbox, it seems most people haven’t even read Breitbart. They just toss around all the terms they can conjure; the news site, according to them, is at once a “disgusting, racist, anti-woman, xenophobic, fear-mongering, hate-mongering organization” that is also “misogynistic” and “supports white supremacists.”
That’s quite the list, and it only scratches the surface. Perhaps some of us may be exaggerating things slightly? (Just a theory!)
I know firsthand that the left extremists are vocal, persistent, and above all insistent. (I was dubbed a white supremacist on Twitter for describing Netflix’s upcoming series, “Dear White People,” as racist). So Shopify’s troubles probably aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, as long as it “supports”—read: allows—Breitbart to leverage its platform.
Which is unnecessary, of course. Downright stupid, in fact.
But that has not been of concern since Donald Trump became President of the United States. Now you’re on the left side of the fence or the right side, it seems, and the other side is now completely wrong on all things all of the time.
Tobias Lütke has a good head on his shoulders. I mean, that’s a big reason why Shopify has been so successful. Thus, I hope he can resist giving in to the madness. Because what we need right now is to allow companies like Shopify to be neutral again.
Shopify is a business. Breitbart is their customer. Let them do their thing, and let’s save our armchair political expertise for tense, awkward family gatherings.