Spotify announced a new Hate Content and Hateful Conduct Public Policy, and the big news centered around R. Kelly. Spotify users will no longer be able to find R. Kelly’s music on any of the streaming service’s editorial or algorithmic playlists. Under the terms of a new public hate content and hateful conduct policy Spotify is putting into effect, the company will no longer promote the R&B singer’s music in any way, removing his songs from flagship playlists like RapCaviar, Discover Weekly or New Music Friday, for example, as well as its other genre- or mood-based playlists.
According to Spotify:
“We are removing R. Kelly’s music from all Spotify owned and operated playlists and algorithmic recommendations such as Discover Weekly,” Spotify told Billboard in a statement. “His music will still be available on the service, but Spotify will not actively promote it. We don’t censor content because of an artist’s or creator’s behavior, but we want our editorial decisions — what we choose to program — to reflect our values. When an artist or creator does something that is especially harmful or hateful, it may affect the ways we work with or support that artist or creator.”
That’s not the only part of the policy, though: Spotify will also remove objectionable content. From the company’s announcement:
We do not tolerate hate content on Spotify — content that expressly and principally promotes, advocates, or incites hatred or violence against a group or individual based on characteristics, including, race, religion, gender identity, sex, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, veteran status, or disability…When we are alerted to content that violates our policy, we may remove it (in consultation with rights holders) or refrain from promoting or playlisting it on our service. It’s important to us that our values are reflected in all the work that we do, whether it’s distribution, promotion, or content creation.
There are two main take away’s and two ways that we can think of this announcement:
• Spotify will not promote content from artists that “is principally made by artists or other creators who have demonstrated hateful conduct personally”
• Spotify will identify “hate content” and either not promote it or actively remove it from the service
The two ways to think about, the first as a moral question, the second is that it makes use acutely aware of the power wielded by centralized aggregators.
Let’s first tackle the moral question: Is it right or wrong to enjoy the work of an artist who was objectionable?
This question ultimately will come down to personal opinion, this last year has been full of moral reminders. #MeToo has made us aware that bad behavior has repercussions however, everyone has an opinion and it’s easy to respect different arguments.
What is most interesting about Spotify’s announcement is that Billboard reported that the music streaming company has been enforcing a version of its hate policy for “the last several years” without publicizing it. They also report that Apple music stopped promoting R Kelly “several months ago” with no announcement.
It’s obvious that the public announcement comes in the wake of a growing campaign dubbed #MuteKelly, which after decades of industry silence and lack of any criminal investigation, was launched in an attempt to hold R Kelly responsible for alleged sexual misconduct and abuse.
Before we continue, we are not defending R Kelly nor do we condone his actions. We want to make it clear before we take on the next question:
Is it right and appropriate for a centralized distributor to be making moral choices for its users?
Who decides what is right and wrong?
This is a question that the tech industry has been struggling for a while. We could dive into the debate around Google’s “Don’t be Evil”. Yesterday we published an article about Googler’s objections to the companies work with the US military drone program.
This question is particularly haunting what you consider that Spotify is “removing R. Kelly’s music from all Spotify owned and operated playlists and algorithmic recommendations”. Biased algorithms. There is no doubt they are a problem, but it seems that we’re taking a step in the opposite direction, rather than trying to build a more neutral algorithm we’re building them to reflect a particular moral compass.
Again, we’re left with the question, whose moral compass should we be using?
The policy is just day’s old and already a feminist group are demanding that the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Eminem be removed as they too can be classified as “Hate Content”.
Under every track on Spotify, there is now a button where users can report such content they deem offensive or “hateful”. Personally, I’ve already taken the time to report Katy Perry’s entire catalog. so I can already see how things can easily go wrong. When you open things up to users, you create a treadmill of work, but keeping it closed and deciding case by case serves to centralizes the power even further.
Is it better to know what they’re doing as Spotify just did, or to act quietly like Apple?
To answer the question how is Spotify determining what is hate, they are working with advocacy groups to define this policy. Who these groups are and how they stack up to your moral compass is up for debate. Ben Thomas over at Stratechery as always does a great job at summing the problem with Spotify’s actions:
What concerns me is the sheer amount of power that results from centralized control: specifically, I am extremely concerned about the explicit exercise of that power because of the nature of the power, not the reasons for which it is exercised. Then again, perhaps the reasons should worry me as well: undue power exercised with the best of intentions has always been the most dangerous power of all.