We can’t coerce businesses to impose a political consensus

It’s not often that Ottawa is the centre of a heated political debate that doesn’t involve Parliament. So it must come to some of our politicians’ relief that, this time, the big story has to do with Shopify, an Ottawa-based business.

For those of you who don’t know, Shopify offers e-commerce platforms for other companies’ online stores. One of those other organizations is none other than Breitbart, an American far-right news site. As the far-right rises in the United States and around the world, so does the reaction against it, and Shopify has come under strong pressure to stop selling to Breitbart.

There is a very strong argument to be made for dropping Breitbart, since they make a habit of peddling, to put it mildly, utter neo-Nazi alt-right rubbish. It pushes an agenda that is racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, to name a few—not to mention that that it also pushes a plethora of conspiracy theories. With all the hate and fear that’s circulating in the world right now, it would be the decent and responsible thing to do to deny these extremists a platform from which they could further their agenda.

That’s what the debate is fundamentally about: corporate responsibility. But do businesses have any responsibilities beyond following the law? And if they do, what are those responsibilities?

A business is essentially a bunch of people who get together and work to sell a product and/or service. A business like Shopify is also private, and sells their service for a profit. So what responsibilities does a private, for-profit group have towards the greater public?

The answer is simple: the only responsibility a business has towards the public is to not unfairly damage stuff or people that isn’t the property of the business. In other words: the business’ freedom to swing its arm ends at someone else’s nose.

So the question is whether Shopify’s hosting of Breitbart is hitting someone’s nose. On the one hand, Breitbart is contributing to a poisonous political climate. On the other hand, a forced political consensus is also damaging. Whether Shopify has a responsibility to stop hosting Breitbart or not basically comes down to a decision over which option is less damaging.

In my mind, a forced political consensus is worse. Of course, it doesn’t seem obvious when Breitbart is the outlier, but remember that the consensus will always change. It wasn’t that long ago that slavery was deemed acceptable by a large portion of the population. Assuming that businesses have a responsibility to follow the political consensus, no matter how much sense that consensus makes, is dangerous.

Ultimately, Shopify has the right to host Breitbart—that’s their choice. And that’s the beauty of the free market: choice.

We, as customers, have just as much a right to not buy from Shopify or from any other business that uses their services. And now that this Ottawa-based company is hitching its wagon to organizations like Breitbart, it might not be a bad idea to exercise that right.