Talk about your delusions of grandeur.
Tobias Lütke, CEO of Ottawa-based e-commerce platform Shopify has responded to growing pressure concerning his company’s dealings with vilified U.S. media organization Breitbart News by saying that in the name of freedom of speech, he and his company will not discontinue their business relationship with Breitbart.
Imploring that his hands are tied, Lütke wrote in a recent post, “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.”
The sentiment and the ethics behind it seem right — why would anyone think it a good idea to curtail another person’s lawful right to speak their mind? But the context is a little odd, at least at first.
Many businesses have to deal with the bad customer, whether it’s the loud, obnoxious diner in the restaurant or the loud and obnoxious shopper in the department store — okay, so bad customers, those within the law and those who pay their bills, at least, are pretty much the same across the board. And that’s the point.
While it may be true that a few business operators occasionally get spurred on by their higher values, the general and more humdrum rule is that a customer gets kicked out when his or her behaviour starts annoying other customers. That guy in the corner booth who’s barking into his soup and banging the table? He is out as soon as other diners start getting panicky. You don’t have to wait until he breaks the law and starts punching the staff.
So why is Lütke’s company so different? Reportedly, thousands of emails and messages have streamed in, all imploring that Shopify cut its ties to Breitbart News. A petition stating the same has garnered 23,000 signatures to date.
Plus, Shopify and its CEO are themselves at pains to speak of their liberal-mindedness and their open embrace of diversity. For all these reasons, Breitbart News, in its racist, uber-nationalist, slanted (not to mention poorly written) news items, surely stands as one of those bad customers who Shopify should be booting.
In the United States, nearly a thousand companies, including techs HP, Lenovo, Etsy, Salesforce, Lyft, and now Uber, have decided to discontinue their respective relationships with Breitbart. Even the comparatively staid Autotrader Canada has joined their ranks. So have Canucks Cymax, ecobee, and LuluLemon.
“Commerce is a powerful, underestimated form of expression,” writes Lütke, “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.”
But now, who gave Shopify the cape and spandex? When did it become a private, money-making company’s job to protect free speech and “make it better for everyone”?
The answer is that tech companies like Shopify and the tech industry in general have always had a deep and symbiotic relationship with both free speech and the ethics of equality. The internet, its progenitors and proponents are nothing if not chockfull of high-minded devotion to advancing the cause of humanity and to making information and knowledge free for all, regardless of age, socio-economic class, national origin, etc. Wikipedia and the Creative Commons, the promise of the Internet of Things and net neutrality — all of these are driven by a deeply ethical motivation, one that tech companies and their CEOs see as their birthright and their mission to uphold, even, sometimes, above and beyond the interest in selling a product.
Yes, there have been other wealthy folks throughout the ages who have given back to society, and at the same time, yes, there are a few tech billionaires out there today who own sports teams, but in general, isn’t it telling that so many of the Carnegies of the present are from the tech world? Half the top 50 philanthropist donors in the U.S., for example, come from high tech.
The point is that not only are they ambitious at bettering humanity’s lot, tech entrepreneurs are keenly aware of the impact their inventions are having upon the world. By changing the way we communicate with each other, by connecting people in new and glorious ways, it’s more than just widgets they’re putting out and most of them know it. Sometimes a little too much.
So while Lütke’s statements may appear high and mighty coming from a company that basically helps other companies to sell stuff, he’s drawing from the same well that has been nourishing tech innovation from the start.