Tonight I came across an article on TechCrunch in response to an open letter from Tobias Lütke, CEO of e-commerce platform Shopify, in which he defends the company’s decision to continue hosting Breitbart’s online shop. Breitbart being the infamous far right publication of which Steve Bannon was heavily involved with.
After sustained criticism, Lütke explains in the post entitled ‘In Support of Free Speech’ that based upon a belief that ‘commerce is a powerful, underestimated form of expression’, it would be wrong to effectively censor merchants by shutting down their shops as the result of differing political views.
Reporting on the letter, TechCrunch shared their post to Facebook with the text: ‘Shopify’s CEO thinks his platform has a responsibility to continue hosting Breitbart’s store – here’s why he’s wrong.’
I was curious to see the arguments that would be proffered as to why the decision was wrong, but was ultimately left wanting. Here are the reasons given, as far as I could make out:
- Lütke is grossly overestimating the role of a private e-commerce platform in providing and protecting freedom of expression.
- Shopify cannot ‘censor’ anybody, as they are not an emanation of the State.
- Justifying the continued hosting of merchants who have extreme views for freedom of speech reasons is wrong, as freedom of speech does not apply to private organisations.
- As a private company, Shopify are not legally required to provide a platform to anybody.
- Shopify’s Terms of Service allow them to terminate the account of any user at any time.
In response, here’s why TechCrunch are wrong:
None of the reasons given actually explain why Shopify shouldn’t continue to host Breitbart.
Read over them again, then check out the full article here. Despite heavily criticising Shopify, and stating that Lütke is ‘wrong’, TechCrunch don’t engage at all with the heart of the issue. No, Shopify are not legally required to host the Breitbart shop, and yes, quite obviously their Terms of Service are quite obviously worded in such a way to give them that discretion in the event of any legal challenge, but that’s hardly a surprise.
Here’s the big question that went unanswered: why should Shopify not host Breitbart?Lütke hits the nail on the head with the following challenge, which the TechCrunch article completely fails to even acknowledge:
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?
Rather than attempt to address this fundamental issue, TechCrunch essentially just argue that Shopify should kick Breitbart off of their platform because, er, well, legally there’s nothing to stop them. A pretty poor argument at best.
Protecting freedom of speech isn’t just down to the State.
Firstly, I’m not sure where this idea that censorship is only something that the State can give effect to comes from. It means to forbid or to ban something; to suppress speech. The source doesn’t have anything to do with it.
Secondly, there is a lot of confusion surrounding freedom of speech and the relation to the State, even from those who purport to understand the dynamic. To clear some things up, the following are true:
- Freedom of speech law (generally) only protects citizens from the acts of State actors.
- Private online service providers (generally) have no obligation to protect the freedom of speech rights of their users, or to give them a platform for expression.
However, to assert that a platform cannot justify their actions based on freedom of speech considerations, or to willingly strive to uphold those principles on the basis of the above is a non sequitur. Additionally, just because you can’t threaten legal action on a freeedom of speech argument against Facebook if they take down your status update, that doesn’t mean it is wrong to argue that Facebook should be doing more to consider and protect those values.
Just as we would not expect a hotel owner to be able to refuse to allow a same sex couple to share a bed, or a pub to knock back someone based purely on the colour of their skin, it is nonsense to pretend that we have no expectations of private organisations to abide by certain shared societal values.
Without touching on the claims around the importance of e-commerce as a vehicle for expression, it seems that in a world where we are increasingly reliant on private entities to provide our virtual town square equivalents, and where we expect certain values to be upheld, arguably platforms such as Shopify have an increasing moral obligation to protect (as far as is possible) the principles that are the cornerstone of our Democracies.