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Earlier this year, a controversy broke out over a Spotify patent involving using speech recognition technology to analyse a listener’s “emotional state, gender, age, or accent” and recommend them music accordingly. This month, more than 180 artists and human rights organisations wrote to Spotify to protest against the technology, and the streaming service has now responded.

The letter was organised by Access Now and Fight for the Future, working with the US Union of Musicians and Allied Workers – which is also running the Justice at Spotify campaign calling for higher royalties; user-centric payouts; an end to “payola” on the service; and abandoning the DSP’s appeal against new songwriter royalty rates in the US.

The letter outlined a number of concerns about Spotify’s patent. “This technology is dangerous, a violation of privacy and other human rights, and should be abandoned.” Tom Morello, Talib Kweli and Laura Jane Grace were among the musicians signing it, alongside human rights groups like Amnesty International and Color of Change.

Spotify’s head of global affairs and chief legal officer Horacio Gutierrez has now written back – a sign that the protest is being taken seriously by Spotify – attempting to reassure the protestors.

“Spotify has never implemented the technology described in the patent in any of our products and we have no plans to do so,” wrote Gutierrez. “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.”

Spotify hopes that the privacy policies around its recent launch of voice-recognition technology and its Car Thing in-car smart speaker are proof of its good intentions. However, the organisations who sent the letter aren’t pulling back just yet.

“If the company actually wants to demonstrate its commitment to protecting human rights, Spotify must publicly declare to never use, license, sell, or monetise its harmful spyware,” said Access Now’s US advocacy manager Jennifer Brody.

“Spotify must completely reject the premise of this technology and commit to never using, licensing, selling, or monetising their speech recognition patent,” added Fight for the Future’s campaigns and communications director Lia Holland.

This is a much bigger issue than just Spotify. As smart speakers proliferate in homes, and as the voice assistants that come with them continue to evolve, criticism of “surveillance capitalism” will increase too.

Gutierrez promised in his letter that “we will always remain open to constructive dialogue with organizations like yours”, and it will be important for Spotify – and all music / audio services, frankly – to keep to that promise, to chart the right path through the ethical quandaries of tech’s next decade.

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Stuart Dredge

Music Ally's Head of Insight

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