Content moderation is complex, difficult and, frankly, exhausting. The most recent example involves Spotify and its decision to stick with the controversial podcast host, Joe Rogan, over other creators. There is no question that Spotify has the right to determine whom to host, profit from or reject from its platform; what is worrisome, however, is Spotify abdicating its ethical responsibility to its users to make such decisions in a transparent and consistent way.
Let’s start from the beginning.
In what is now a widely-reported case, Neil Young demanded the removal of his catalog from Spotify as a form of protest against Spotify’s deal to be the exclusive platform for the extremely popular podcast The Joe Rogan Experience, on the grounds that the podcast is spreading COVID-19 vaccine misinformation. Soon after, other musicians including Joni Mitchell, India Arie, and Nils Lofgren also asked that their content be removed . Best-selling social psychologist, Brene Brown, initially refused to tape new podcasts, but she recently returned, citing “few options.” Even the White House weighed in. All of this followed an open letter last month to Spotify from 270 U.S. health experts expressing concern about medical misinformation on The Joe Rogan Experience, calling it a “menace to public health.”
The response from Spotify has been two-pronged. First, Daniel Ek, its CEO, published a blog where he committed to “do more to provide more balance and access to widely-accepted information from the medical and scientific communities.” And, second, Spotify further announced that podcasts discussing the COVID-19 virus would now come with content advisories. This seems to be an effort by Spotify to ensure that the small movement Neil Young started will not extend to artists that are more popular (and more important) for Spotify such as Taylor Swift, Bad Bunny or BTS.
But, even if this strategy manages to put a break on a bigger and more damaging Spotify-exodus, none of these actions ultimately address Spotify’s underlying problem: a messy and inconsistent policy environment that appears to privilege some creators over others.
In his post, Ek stated: “We know that we have a critical role to play in supporting creator expression while balancing it with the safety of our users. In that role, it is important to me that we don’t take on the position of being content censor while also making sure that there are rules in place and consequences for those who violate them.”
There are two, quite separate, issues here that warrant clarification.
The first is that Spotify, like any other private company, is not obligated to provide a platform to anyone; it has the right to decide whose content to host, what content to profit from, and what content to not accept.
Spotify, like pretty much every other company hosting content, makes curatorial decisions like these all the time. For example, in 2018, Spotify enforced what is known as the “R. Kelly rule,” instituting a policy to ban or bury music or artists that it considered hateful, only later to reverse it. Also, during the summer of 2021, Spotify took down as many as 750,000 songs from indie artists with no explanation other than they had apparently violated its policy about artificially boosting play numbers. However, according to Rolling Stone magazine, “the abrupt removal exposes a double standard in Spotify’s policy,” considering that, in January of 2020, Justin Bieber asked his fans to help artificially boost his song “Yummy” by “putting it on loop or downloading VPNs”. Yet Justin Bieber was neither banned from the platform nor did his music get removed.
Therein lies the crux of the problem. Spotify and other platforms have double standards for content creators. Even now that Spotify has responded to the concerns of medical professionals and artists by publishing its Platform Rules on “deceptive medical information,” it has given us no reason to believe these rules will not be discriminately applied and enforced depending on the artist at the receiving end. If the artist is popular like Justin Bieber or directly profitable like Joe Rogan, then the rules may not apply; but, if the artist is someone that is not as popular, then Spotify’s policies will apply and, they will apply, faster than the blink of an eye.
Whether we are talking about legal rules enforced by governments or corporate policies, a paramount requirement is that they must be predictable, consistent, necessary, and proportionate, if they are to reflect basic standards of transparency and accountability. This is the minimum any citizen participating in social life or, any user participating in the online environment, should be able to expect. In their absence, citizens face great difficulty in expressing themselves and sharing their art effectively.
Similar to other platforms, Spotify encourages an environment of second-class citizens against whom its content policies are more strictly enforced. Content creators are not treated equally, as this most recent case clearly demonstrates. Artists shouldn’t have to stage a protest to get the bare minimum of transparency and accountability. It’s on Spotify to maintain policies that allow content creators to understand the environment they are about to enter, the rules that govern their participation, and the way these rules are enforced.