Musicians Ask Spotify to Promise It will Never Use Its Creepy Speech-Recognition Patent

Musicians Ask Spotify to Promise It will Never Use Its Creepy Speech-Recognition Patent
Photo: Martin Bureau/AFP, Getty Images
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Earlier this year, Spotify was granted a patent for speech-recognition tech that could potentially recommend music based on your “emotional state, gender, age, or accent.” Now, a coalition of more than 180 artists and human rights organisations has written Spotify a letter asking the company to publicly commit to abandoning the dystopian technology.

The letter, which is addressed to Spotify CEO Daniel Ek, demands that the music streaming company publicly declare it will “never use, licence, sell, or monetise the recommendation technology.” Among the letter’s signees are notable musicians like Talib Kweli, Eve 6, Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, The Moldy Peaches’ Kimya Dawson, DIIV, and several others.

Spotify’s recommendation algorithm is already freakishly accurate, but the patent adds another layer of creepiness, as it involves an always-on listening device. However, the letter also argues the tech is emotionally manipulative, discriminatory against trans and non-binary people, violates privacy and data security, and exacerbates inequality in the music industry. “Music should be made for human connection, not to please a profit-maximizing algorithm,” the letter reads.

“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,” Isedua Oribhabor, U.S. policy analyst for digital rights group Access Now, said in a statement. In addition to being a signee, Access Now is also spearheading the coalition’s efforts. “The millions of people who use Spotify deserve respect and privacy, not covert manipulation and monitoring.”

This isn’t the first letter sent to Spotify on the subject, either. Access Now first sent a public letter in early April. In that initial letter, the group called on Spotify to abandon the technology and answer questions regarding how it planned to protect user data. Spotify then responded on April 15 with its own letter. The company clarified that it had “never implemented the technology” and had no plans to do so, arguing that many tech companies preemptively patent innovations that never wind up in a final product.

“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,” wrote Horatio Gutierrez, Spotify’s head of global affairs and chief legal officer.

That response was clearly not good enough. The coalition letter concludes by reiterating that any use of such tech was “unacceptable,” noting that Spotify “could profit from the surveillance tool if another entity deploys it.” Gizmodo asked Spotify for comment, and a Spotify spokesperson referred us back to their initial reply to Access Now.

The coalition is asking for a public response from Spotify by May 18. If Spotify does respond, it’s not likely to say anything more than it already has — and publicly committing to abandoning proprietary patents for the greater good generally isn’t something major corporations do. But who knows? Stranger things have happened.