News / Ottawa

Renowned programmer pulls out of tech conference hosted by Shopify

Toronto developer, who teaches coding to women and minorities, says Ottawa firm's relationship with Breitbart puts it "on the wrong side of history."

Toronto programmer Ashley Lewis, who teaches coding at Ryerson University, has pulled out of a panel appearance at Shopify's Toronto offices, citing the company's decision to continue its commercial relationship with Breitbart News.

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Toronto programmer Ashley Lewis, who teaches coding at Ryerson University, has pulled out of a panel appearance at Shopify's Toronto offices, citing the company's decision to continue its commercial relationship with Breitbart News.

Ottawa tech giant Shopify faces increasing pressure to cease business with Breitbart, a website associated with the American white-nationalist movement.

This weekend, a renowned developer pulled out of a panel on diversity in technology, because it was hosted by Shopify’s Toronto office.

“I wholeheartedly believe Shopify is on the wrong side of history,” said Ashley Jane Lewis, a 27-year-old Toronto developer who has spent years teaching women and minorities technology skills.

“I regret all my encounters with them,” said Lewis, who teaches coding to Ryerson University undergrads. “I didn’t know this was at the core of who they were.”

Earlier this month, the Women in Leadership Foundation approached Lewis to be part of a Feb. 28 panel during its annual women-in-technology week.

Days prior, Shopify employees told reporters they’d signed petitions to have the company cut ties with Breitbart.

Last year, former Breitbart executive Steve Bannon, who is now chief strategist to U.S. President Donald Trump, called his website “the platform for the alt-right,” a movement the Associated Press defines as “an offshoot of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism and populism.”

Lewis wanted to see how Shopify would respond. Breitbart uses Shopify to sell merchandise, like T-shirts praising a Mexican border wall.

Last Wednesday, Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke published an online essay titled “In Support of Free Speech,” calling his company “an unlikely defender of Breitbart’s right to sell products.”

“To kick off a merchant is to censor ideas,” wrote Lütke. Lewis found that ridiculous.

“I was really disappointed, and quite mad,” she said. “Freedom of speech is something people are quite confused about in this type of climate. It's defined in many dictionaries quite clearly; it's the ability to state your options without government reprisal ... as long as they don't alter the quality of life of the people around you.”

Lewis said she’s alarmed people believe not engaging with controversies relieves them of moral responsibility.

“There are many other platforms this site can host their content on. So there isn’t any silencing going on; it's more of a moral stance.”

Earlier, Shopify held a free screening of Hidden Figures, a film highlighting black women working in technology.

“The hypocrisy of this stance as a follow-up is just so nauseating,” said Lewis. “Spaces hold representation, and they hold clout.”

On Saturday, Ottawa restaurant Union Local 613 wrote on Facebook that “after much consideration we have decided to suspend our relationship” with Shopify, which had used to help plan events.

Meanwhile, Lütke has doubled down, tweeting on Saturday that people wanted to “censor” Breitbart.

“Imagine all the energy to censor voices would be directed towards talk, engagement, and sharing with those who see things differently.”

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