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Spotify enforces hateful conduct policy, removing artists from its platform for off-platform behavior (2018)

Summary: In May 2018, music streaming service Spotify deployed an updated "Hate Content and Hateful Conduct" policy. The first part of this new policy allowed for the removal of content promoting hatred or violence, with a similar definition to hate speech policies on other platforms. But the second portion, regarding "hateful conduct", extended beyond the content uploaded to Spotify to cover the general behavior of the artists themselves:

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 (for example, violence against children and sexual violence), it may affect the ways we work with or support that artist or creator.

The first targets of this updated policy were two controversial artists -- both of which were facing criminal charges: R. Kelly and XXXTentacion. R. Kelly's music was the first to be removed, with Spotify stating the songs themselves contained no hateful content, but that when "creators" engaged in off-platform conduct "so particularly out of line" with Spotify's "values," the platform would remove their content from its curated playlists.

This provoked backlash from R.Kelly and some users, some of whom pointed out other artists facing criminal charges (like the late XXXTentacion) were still featured in Spotify playlists. Spotify soon followed through by removing XXXTentacion's "SAD!", which provoked even more criticism. XXXTentacion's reps pointed out Spotify was still featuring songs from a long list of artists who had been accused of criminal activity, ranging from Gene Simmons of KISS to producer/rapper Dr. Dre.

Decisions to be made by Spotify:

  • Should Spotify be in the business of policing off-platform behavior by artists? Is this something most users would agree Spotify should be doing?
  • Is only removing songs from Spotify-curated playlists enough of a deterrent to bad behavior by artists utilizing the service?
  • How proactive should Spotify be in monitoring off-platform behavior? Can this policy be applied consistently?

Questions and policy implications to consider:

  • What role should an intermediary have in determining whether or not artistic works are available based on the unrelated conduct of the creator?
  • Can hateful conduct be defined concisely enough to prevent over-moderation?
  • Given the large number of recording artists accused of criminal acts or other moral turpitude, is it possible to uphold a "hateful conduct" policy without stripping the service of music users are interested in hearing? 
  • What is the best response when users of a service point out inconsistent application of a policy?

Resolution: Perhaps realizing the impossibility of "offline" moderation of artists' off-duty activities, Spotify rescinded its "hateful conduct" policy and reinstated music taken down during this enforcement action.

Spotify left the "hate content" policy in place and clarified it never intended to "regulate artists." Reps noted the policy, while well-intentioned, was too vague to be accurately or completely enforced and, if left in place, would only result in more inequitable or inconsistent moderation decisions. 

Written by The Copia Institute, May 2021

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