Ideology, Shopify and the Changing Space of Commerce

Posted by: Steve Buck on 24 Aug, 2018

The digital workspace is an ever-evolving environment that has altered the way the world does business. It’s impossible to control, and crucial to keep up with… especially when you’re responsible for the success of a business. Recent changes to Shopify’s Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) have reminded us how volatile this space can be, and how an agency must never become complacent with technology, methods and techniques. This change in policy also makes us question the power that gargantuan service platforms exert on businesses and what this means for the future of online commerce.

What Happened with Shopify?

Earlier this month, Shopify, a dominating eCommerce platform, announced an update to their Acceptable Use Policy which prohibits the sale of certain firearms. Tobi Lutke, CEO of the Canadian company, defended his position and said, “Solely deferring to the law, in this age of political gridlock, is too idealistic and functionally unworkable on the fast moving internet.”

For us, this meant that three major clients’ online stores were served a harsh eviction notice.

We exist to help businesses dream bigger. We do that with cutting-edge, digital technologies. For years we’ve enjoyed the freedom that Shopify provided for our developers and designers and the ease of which our clients were able to manage their stores from the back end. The custom stores we’ve made for our clients have elevated their businesses and enabled them to grow exponentially. Finding out that we can’t use this service anymore was jarring to say the least.

A Question For the Future

Digital platforms change their policies all the time. This is nothing new to our agency. However, this update has us calling into question the influence monolithic service providers have over eCommerce and free speech.

Shopify’s decision to ban the sale of semi-automatic firearms that have an ability to accept a detachable magazine and are capable of accepting more than 10 rounds along with unfinished lower receivers will have a significant impact on a few of our clients’ businesses. It also flushes hundreds of hours of design and development work down the drain for our agency. It’s not an ideal situation but we will rebuild and we can make their sites even better. We can also ensure that going forward our clients are safeguarded from changes like this by migrating to an open-source CMS, like WordPress.

We firmly respect and stand by Shopify’s right to refuse service to anyone, for any reason. While this decision negatively impacts our agency and our clients, we support the rights of companies standing by their values. In a free market, imposing those values upon your clients is your right.

However, we believe that Shopify made a huge mistake here. Earlier this year, Lutke was getting tens of thousands of emails concerning the platform’s customer, Breitbart. At the time, the CEO stated that he considered products to be free speech and he was not comfortable stifling free speech by removing the company’s store from the service. Now, by removing products, which Lutke defined as free speech, the company seems to be revising their stance. This comes as a shock because not only are they banning a legal product from sale on the internet, it’s the ONLY product that is protected by the United States constitution. This seems a lot to us like stifling free speech and usurping the second amendment.

Once again, the fact that Shopify, a public company, has the right to refuse to support whatever they choose is not a problem. Our issue lies in the ability for a prominent and paramount service to dictate what can and can’t be sold. It’s becoming clear that tech companies are exposing their own moral beliefs and political opinions and shifting their ideals onto their customers. It becomes problematic, in our eyes, when these third parties get so big that their sudden decisions affect hundreds of thousands of businesses. We think that because of their size, reach and influence, they should be staying neutral as long as the discussion isn’t encroaching on personal liberties and rights.

We wonder how this will impact the trajectory of eCommerce. Will these mega-service providers be able to control our “free” market with their terms of service? What do businesses need to do to ensure that their interests are served in a space so volatile? When use policies can be changed overnight and entire stores shutterd, what can businesses do to sidestep catastrophic financial and operational loss?

The beauty of the United States is that there will never, ever, be only one solution to a problem. When one closed-source door shuts, another open-source door… opens.

What Can Firearm eStores Learn From This?

Our firearm clients took a major hit with Shopify’s announcement. It hurt not only their online store directly, but also the brick-and-mortar gun stores that these parts and firearms are distributed to along with the lawful gun owner who is simply exercising their 2nd Amendment right. These companies will now have to pay for a whole new website and our agency is going to be rushing to build that site on another CMS before the Dec 31st deadline.

There are many options when it comes to eCommerce, but store owners should consider if the platform is open-source or closed-source. Each have their advantages and disadvantages, and it’s worth it to understand the difference. Shopify is a closed-source platform. This means that they provide you the software, you build your site around it and they take care of all the back-end management: security, hosting, edits, glitches, everything. It’s extremely easy to use and, for the most part, hassle free. One major problem with closed-source CMSs is that if they make a change in policy that restricts what you can and can’t sell, all the work you’ve done is gone. You cannot move it to a new host. You have to start all over again.

Popular Closed-Source eCommerce Platforms:

Bigcommerce
Shopify
Squarespace
Wix

The other option are open-sourced platforms. These platforms are entirely yours. You must take care of hosting, servicing the site, managing the back-end and taking care of edits. It is more work but if your hosting service should one day decide to throttle your business, you can simply backup your site, move it to another host and go on selling in a matter of hours.

Popular Open-Source eCommerce Platforms:

WordPress
Magento
Drupal

We are suggesting that our clients and future owners of online stores that sell firearms or any other “controversial” products carefully consider their options. Do research on these eCommerce CMSs and find one that aligns, unwaveringly, to your beliefs. Don’t feel strange about getting in touch with a representative and asking hard questions. In the end, if they will not support your business, you do not want them to have control over your business. Ask this of any agency you’re shopping as well. They are your tech translator, can help you make these decisions and will be there for you if a seemingly flippant policy change is made.

You would do well to make sure you’re aware of your options and never think that just because a tech company is big, servicing all your competitors and every other business you can think of, that it’s a good fit for you. Do your due diligence, ask around and understand what type of agreement you’re getting into.

Our value lies in our ability to adapt our clients’ strategies – and in the current case, rebuild their entire website on another eCommerce platform – to work within the systems in place. When working with search engines, social media platforms and eCommerce tools, your business can hang in the balance of shifting political climates, legal battles and public opinion. It is our job to recognize this and ensure that your digital presence is minimally affected, no matter what changes take place to the platform.