Geert Lovink on Fri, 6 Oct 2017 22:22:24 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Spotify Threatened Researchers Who Revealed ‘Pirate’ History

This story is about algorithmic transparency, and the way platforms have come to interfer in public opinion. 

Spotify attempted to shut down a publicly funded research project because it did not like the project’s findings. 

The research project on Spotify is funded by the Swedish Research Council (2013-2018, Its a critical take on Spotify’s history and of its current practices. The researchers looked at Spotify’s user data collection, an issue that only will grow in importance with the EU General Data Provision Regulation coming up in 2018. They also studied Spotify’s Swedish history, including the company’s lobbying efforts, and provided a historical narrative of the platform's development following its funding rounds. The project strictly adhers to ethical guidelines and received the Council’s highest ranking for method innovation. It is funded with a one million Euro grant. 

On May 7,2017 a member of the research team was interviewed by Dagens Industri, a Swedish financial newspaper. He mentioned in passing that Spotify had operated as a pirate service during its implementation phase, distributing music without having secured the licenses. This particular statement was picked up by TorrentfreakDigital Music News, and other online media and circulated widely in the US (

A few weeks later, Spotify’s legal counsel in Stockholm, Benjamin Helldén-Hegelund, contacted the Swedish Research Council (VR) and asked to cut off the funding. This was necessary, Helldén-Hegelius claimed, because the project used "dishonest and illegal“ methods. "It is Spotify’s hope that VR acts resolutely in order to make sure that dishonest and illegal methods stop being used immediately. Spotify looks forward to VR’s prompt reply.“ VR did not comply and rejected Spotify’s demand to cut off our funding as baseless, after having spoken to us and the project’s hosting university.

Perhaps the project violated Spotify’s Terms of Service, as many projects in the field of Internet Studies do. We scraped information from Spotify’s publicly accessible interface, for instance, but never collected or analyzed any private user data, let alone Spotify’s internal data. Many of the same methods are used by journalists. What is more, such violation of the ToS had long stopped, and had nothing to do with a lack of research ethics or even criminal behavior. Spotify had been made aware of the project already in 2013, and we had been in contact with Spotify staff on several occasions. The project follows the guidelines for digital research issued by the AOIR-Association of Internet Researchers and has the full support of the hosting university. It is, however, a critical project. 

It is unprecedented that a platform attempts to shut down a publicly funded research project. The team spoke to a number of colleagues in the US and Europe who do research on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms using similar methods as we do. This has not happened before. 

One of the colleagues they were in touch with is Christian Sandvig (Univ of Michigan). Professor Sandvig has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The CFAA, as much as any platform’s terms of service, are often criminally prohibiting the work of researchers and journalists. What these platforms do with user data and cultural content is in the public interest. These interests need to be defended. Sandvig’s case is briefly explained here:

Spotify suggests that its Terms of Service equal both national legislation and research ethics. In practice, they don’t. But the suggestion is, indicative of the difficulties, journalists and researchers may face in the future. In the offline world, audit testing has long been recognized. If its no longer recognized in the online world, where will we will all end up — given the enormous amounts of behavioral user data Spotify is collecting.

Media stories so far:

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