E-commerce companies are still processing payment transactions for extremists

Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones speaks outside of the Dirksen building of Capitol Hill FILE. Sept. 5, 2018 AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

In September, PayPal, the internet financial services giant, permanently banned right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars website for promoting hate.

A month earlier, Facebook, Apple, YouTube and Spotify banned Jones, who helped spread conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attacks and the Sandy Hook school shooting. Twitter followed suit weeks later.

With each social platform giving way, Jones lost amplification for his message. But PayPal’s break with Jones was different. It was the first business-to-business e-commerce platform to block Infowars from making financial transactions—and generating direct revenue—from its own customers because the site had promoted “hate and discriminatory intolerance.” Now, Jones is suing PayPal over the ban.

Having taken a stance on Infowars, PayPal has waded into the moral debate on how much extremism a company should tolerate on its platform. And it isn’t alone. An analysis by The Logic shows that several companies—including WooCommerce, BigCommerce, Stripe and Canada’s own Shopify—continue processing transactions for extremist or hate groups, as defined by the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC), a U.S.-based non-profit.

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Talking Point

While responsible investment portfolios have so far been largely limited to environmental and anti-gun concerns, the head of Canada’s Responsible Investment Association says he hopes e-commerce companies will change course so that portfolios that avoid hate groups won’t be necessary.

WooCommercewhich, in 2015, was acquired by Automattic, the parent company of open-source blogging software WordPress—has at least 10 extremist groups or individuals using its software to sell their wares. These include the white supremacist National Policy Institute, the far-right militia Oath Keepers, the anti-LGBT Family Watch International and David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Mark Armstrong, a spokesperson for Automattic, said the company doesn’t host the sites themselves, but did not deny that they use the platform. “WooCommerce is downloadable software, much like Word, Photoshop, etc., so it’s likely to be used with a variety of different web hosts or payment processors,” said Armstrong.

Last year, Shopify was subject to both public and internal pressure—including a letter from employees to company CEO Tobi Lütke and staff resignations—for providing services to far-right media publisher Breitbart News Network, which it continues to do. It is also the e-commerce platform of choice for The Rebel, the Canadian far-right media publication.

While Shopify made changes to its terms of service to exclude the sale of certain kinds of firearms earlier this year, Lütke has maintained that Breitbart has not violated the company’s terms of service.

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One Shopify employee, who spoke to The Logic on the condition of anonymity, said they agree with Lütke.

“I understand, to some degree, the rationale behind not cutting off Breitbart or The Rebel, as you could say they are media and that they have been legitimized by conservative politicians,” they said.

They did, however, take issue with the fact that Shopify is used by the Proud Boys Store, where the far-right men’s organization—identified as a hate group by the SPLC—sells its branded merchandise. “I do not understand management’s lack of concern that we are a service provider for actual hate groups,” said the Shopify employee.

The Proud Boys—founded in 2016 by Vice Media co-founder turned right-wing commentator Gavin McInnes—openly advocate for what they call “western chauvinism,” which includes subjugating women through “traditional gender roles.” The group’s initiation rites are alleged to include committing physical violence against people with opposing political views. In the Proud Boys Shopify store, products include T-shirts with “Proud Boys” wordmarks and logos, and also one bearing the phrase “Feminism = Cancer.”

Shopify is also used by Generations, another organization identified as a hate group by the SPLC. The head of Generations, Kevin Swanson, advocates for the execution of gay people. The organization also offers “educational” materials for sale that include homophobic literature and books that decry feminism, abortion and transgender rights.

Two other Shopify employees also told The Logic they believe the company is wrong to allow such groups on the platform.

Shopify did not reply to requests for comment. In its terms of service, the company reserves the right to delete stores it finds “offensive, threatening, libelous, defamatory, pornographic, obscene, or otherwise objectionable,” though Lütke reiterated in a blog post this year that the company leans toward the stricter terms of legality as to what it allows.

In recent years, funds and portfolios that offer environmentally or gun-free “socially responsible” investments have become increasingly popular, although hate groups have yet to receive similar attention.

“The rise of social and political extremism is concerning on many levels, and there are certainly investors who would be concerned to know that some companies in their portfolio may be supporting hate groups,” said Dustyn Lanz, CEO of the Responsible Investment Association, whose members include CIBC, RBC Global Asset Management and Desjardins.

Lantz said he is unaware of any specific investment products that screen out extremist because the profile of the issue has only taken hold in recent months.

“And, quite frankly, I would hope this trend doesn’t last long enough for such products to be needed,” he added. “I suspect and hope that these e-commerce companies will change course following some public pressure.”

While PayPal did blacklist Jones and Infowars, it still provides payment services for the Quebec nationalist, anti-immigration group La Meute (which is classified as a far-right group by the Longueuil, Que.-based Centre for Expertise and Training on Religious Fundamentalism and Radicalization). In a statement, PayPal said its policy “is not to allow our services to be used for activities that promote hate, violence or racial intolerance.”

The company said it reviews accounts based on these parameters and takes action if it believes a seller has violated them, but declined to discuss specific customers.

Stripe, which is used by anti-Muslim advocacy group Act for America, did not respond to a request for comment. BigCommerce, which is used by Swedish white nationalist website Red Ice, also did not reply to a request for comment.

Infowars is still able to make money by selling products on its web store using the e-commerce platform Magento, which was acquired by Adobe for US$1.68 billion in May. Adobe and Magento did not reply to multiple requests for comment.

One expert said there is a potential solution for e-commerce companies caught in a bind over whether to allow hate groups to use their platforms. Richard Warman, a human rights lawyer who worked for the Canadian Human Rights Commission and specializes in internet law as it relates to hate groups, said there is nothing illegal about e-commerce firms allowing their platforms to be used by extremists, but that instead, the “morals of the owners and shareholders” are at play.

“I would encourage them to do the right thing and tell hate groups that they can take their business elsewhere,” said Warman. “If they want to make some sort of free speech statement, then at least do like a number of U.S. web hosting companies have done in the past: agree to host the odious client, but make it clear publicly that you’re donating all the money they pay you to human rights advocacy groups within the communities that are being targeted by the client.  Usually the haters leave of their own accord shortly thereafter.”

With files from Zane Schwartz