Two fascinating and complementary stories hit the news this week.
The Breitbart/Shopify business relationship has come under fire on one hand, while at the same time there has been an outcry over PayPal’s refusal to process a payment that appeared to be related to “Syria”.
Here’s the thing– in a democracy you can’t have it both ways. It’s a bit absurd to complain when PayPal refuses to process donations made to Wikileaks, or won’t accept a payment “because Syria” and then vilify Shopify for setting itself up as a neutral, apolitical platform.
In an open letter, Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke clarified the company’s position:
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.
Much has been made of the fact that Shopify’s ToS contains clauses giving it 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.” Lütke’s response is that the platform will provide service to any organization if their activities are within the law.
As someone who makes a hobby of studying online ToS verbiage I can tell you the intention of these clauses is not to lay the groundwork for policing the politics of customers.
The open letter also underscores the clear distinction between Shopify’s provision of service to Breitbart and any endorsement or tacit approval of Breitbart. Lütke writes:
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.
…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.
To be honest, when I first heard about this my knee-jerk reaction was revulsion. I too was put off on a social/cultural/political level that Shopify hosts Breitbart’s e-commerce. But I quickly reminded myself that I’ve also been critical of PayPal’s ethics when cutting off accounts on the basis of political and/or “moral” criteria.
People can, of course, choose to do business with Shopify or not. But it’s useful to consider, what if the next business they opt not to service is one that you *do* support? Would you still advocate the exercise of those ToS clauses?
Neutrality as an ideal is important—in business, in law, and especially in business law. This is not to say neutrality should trump everything – child pornography, hate speech, and other illegal activities are all regulated by the law, not the free market.
Shopify is simply providing an ecommerce platform, and the companies using that platform will thrive or fail based on the free market.
Neutrality as a concept does not mean only things that are popular should exist. The notion of net neutrality is grounded in an understanding that the Internet is built upon openness. It is precisely this openness that enables people to connect and exchange information freely (as long as the information or service is not illegal.) That openness is why the Internet is so powerful and why advocates of net neutrality guard it so fiercely.
If one makes the effort to consider this case objectively, it’s clear that Shopify is articulating and championing that very openness of access. This is to be commended, not condemned.