But as my colleague Alexis Madrigal notes, the notion of the unbiased platform is dying before our eyes, if it ever really existed: “Some things could not be said. Some types of content were favored by advertisers and companies. The algorithms they use to sort and promote content have biases.” In other words, you simply cannot order this much information without making some judgments.
Read: The ‘platform’ excuse is dying
Of course, Wayfair is not Facebook. Facebook makes money by collecting information about users and serving advertisements, which it achieves in part by maximizing user interactions. Wayfair makes money when you buy a couch or a patio umbrella or a throw pillow. Facebook’s service is speech, which is inherently political. Wayfair’s is moderately priced home goods—inherently not. You can understand why the company might be a little caught off guard to suddenly be defending its business decisions using the language of discrimination and the First Amendment.
But it, too, was never really neutral, because any $6 billion, publicly traded company is too powerful not to be. Last year, Wayfair pulled ads from Laura Ingraham’s show after the conservative television host insulted the Parkland survivor David Hogg on Twitter. An employee at the meeting also noted that the company “engages in a lot of political behavior already”: Wayfair doesn’t sell pillows printed with hate speech, for example, and employees “edit the language of customer posts or product information to remove sensitive information—words that might upset someone or be considered sensitive.” None of these examples are exactly the same as refusing service to a government contractor, but the speaker’s ultimate point stands: “Everything that we do … will define our political values as a company.”
Listen to a Wayfair employee argue that the company has never been politically neutral:
This is a lesson that the large tech platforms have learned, in no small part because their employees have begun to hold them accountable. In the past year, workers at Microsoft, Salesforce, Google, and Amazon have all pressured their employers to revisit government contracts they deemed unethical. Now, it seems, less overtly political companies are also learning that every decision has political valence.
“We are a furniture company,” one employee told me. “But we also employ people who care about where they work and have every right to surface things when they have problems.” (The employee requested and was granted anonymity for fear of retaliation, and because they didn’t want to take credit for a group effort. On the meeting audio, Kate Gulliver, Wayfair’s head of talent, is heard strongly emphasizing that no employees who walk out will face repercussions. Gulliver did not respond to a request for comment.)
“We sell furniture, and so, you know this type of particular, very polarizing example?” Conine said at one point during the meeting. “It doesn’t come up that often.” But really, it was only a matter of time. The political moment has created a sort of moral gyre from which no corporation is truly safe, no matter whether it’s selling dish sets or drones, and no matter how deeply its executives want to avoid taking a side.