Like many of his peers in the tech industry, Shopify Inc. CEO Tobias Lütke isn’t a fan of the Donald Trump administration, or its most ardent media supporter, Breitbart News Network. But that doesn’t make it his job to silence the controversial website’s right to freedom of speech, he says.
In a Feb. 8 blog post, Lütke responded to the thousands of critics who have sent him and other Shopify employees emails imploring them to stop Breitbart from using the Shopify platform to sell its merchandise online, making it clear that while he does not support the website or its views, his company intends to continue giving Breitbart access to its platform.
“It would be easy to kick off merchants we don’t like, and doing so would actually make our lives significantly easier,” he wrote. “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 U.S., or kicking merchants off our platform if they’re operating within the law.”
To date, Lütke has received more than 10,000 anti-Breitbart emails, tweets, and messages, and Shopify employees are facing similar pressure, he wrote. But while he admitted that Shopify is an “unlikely” defender of Breitbart’s right to sell products, he also emphasized that as someone who believes in free speech, it was not his place to silence voices with which he disagrees.
“Commerce is a powerful, underestimated form of expression. We use it to cast a vote with every product we buy,” he wrote. “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.”
Noting that Shopify has been pressured by various groups to withdraw its support for controversial merchants or products since its inception, Lütke emphasized his point with a quote from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “an organization we agree with” which has received $24 million USD in donations since Trump’s team implemented its ban of travellers from seven predominantly Muslim countries:
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.
In an addendum, Lütke also noted that Shopify does not advertise on Breitbart, which uses the Google Adsense platform.
“While we do use Google to buy such ads, we specifically instructed Google to not allow any Shopify ads on their site,” he wrote. “This has been in place for months.”
Breitbart has recently enjoyed an elevated profile in the mainstream media thanks to former editor-in-chief Steve Bannon’s leading role in the Trump administration. Bannon has called Breitbart a “platform for the alt-right,” which the Canadian Press style guide encourages reporters to call “a U.S.-based offshoot of conservatism that combines elements of racism, white nationalism and populism.”
Its online store includes items such as a t-shirt and beer sleeves that celebrate the proposed wall that Trump has promised to build along the U.S.-Mexico border.