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Artists back campaign against Spotify’s emotion tracking patent

By | Published on Thursday 6 May 2021


The pressure is building on Spotify to formally abandon a patent it recently secured in the US which covers a speech-recognition technology that would enable the streaming service to recommend music based on a user’s environment and emotions. Now a plethora of artists have put their name to a letter calling that proposed technology “dangerous, a violation of privacy and other human rights”, adding that it “should not be implemented by Spotify or any other company”.

The new patent was criticised last month by the US-based campaign group Access Now, which says that it seeks to “defend and extend the digital rights of users at risk around the world”. In a letter to the streaming firm, it said the technology protected by the new patent “presents grave privacy and security concerns”. It added that “monitoring emotional state, and making recommendations based on it, puts Spotify in a dangerous position of power in relation to a user”.

Noting other features of the proposed new tech, the digital rights group’s Isedua Oribhabor added: “There is absolutely no valid reason for Spotify to even attempt to discern how we’re feeling, how many people are in a room with us, our gender, age, or any other characteristic the patent claims to detect. The millions of people who use Spotify deserve respect and privacy, not covert manipulation and monitoring”.

Spotify’s Chief Legal Officer Horacio Gutierrez responded to Access Now’s concerns, stating: “Spotify has never implemented the technology described in the patent in any of our products and we have no plans to do so. Our research and development teams are constantly envisioning and developing new technologies as part of our ongoing innovation cycle. Sometimes those innovations end up being implemented in our products and sometimes they don’t”.

“The decision to patent an invention does not always reflect the company’s intent to implement the invention in a product”, he added, “but is instead influenced by a number of other considerations, including our responsibilities to our users and to society at large. I can assure you that any products Spotify develops both now and in the future will reflect our commitment to conducting business in a socially responsible manner and comply with applicable law”.

But that statement is not enough, according to a new open letter, this time signed by a number of human rights organisations and a load of artists, including Tom Morello, Talib Kweli, Laura Jane Grace, DIIV, Illuminati Hotties, Kimya Dawson and Yoni Wolf.

Addressing Spotify boss Daniel Ek, they state: “We write to you as a group of concerned musicians and human rights organisations from across the globe who are deeply alarmed by Spotify’s recently approved speech-recognition patent. Spotify claims that the technology can detect, among other things, ’emotional state, gender, age, or accent’ to recommend music. This recommendation technology is dangerous, a violation of privacy and other human rights, and should not be implemented by Spotify or any other company”.

The letter then runs through various specific concerns about emotion manipulation, discrimination, privacy violations and data security, and also adds that the proposed new tech could “exacerbate inequality in the music industry”, because “using artificial intelligence and surveillance to recommend music will only serve to exacerbate existing disparities in the music industry – music should be made for human connection, not to please a profit-maximising algorithm”.

Noting Gutierrez’s response to the original letter from Access Now, the new letter concludes: “While we are pleased to hear that Spotify has no current plans to deploy the technology, it begs the question: why are you exploring its use? We call on your company to make a public commitment to never use, license, sell, or monetise the recommendation technology. Even if Spotify doesn’t use it, your company could profit from the surveillance tool if another entity deploys it. Any use of this technology is unacceptable”.

It remains to be seen how Spotify now responds.