Spotify has a problem. Over the past few weeks, it has faced criticism over its most popular podcaster, Joe Rogan, who frequently hosts guests with controversial opinions, especially on topics like COVID-19 vaccines.
It started with an open letter from doctors asking the streaming service to take action against misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines. Then, earlier this week Neil Young asked his label WarnerBros to remove his entire catalog of music from the streaming service. On Wednesday, Spotify confirmed it had removed Young’s music. Late Friday, Joni Mitchell also said she asked to have her music removed.
The reasoning is that neither wants to be associated with a platform that openly hosts misinformation for profit. In a letter on his website, Young explained it this way:
I support free speech. I have never been in favor of censorship. Private companies have the right to choose what they profit from, just as I can choose not to have my music support a platform that disseminates harmful information. I am happy and proud to stand in solidarity with the front-line health care workers who risk their lives every day to help others.
Young’s statement gets to the heart of Spotify’s problem, which isn’t that Rogan is controversial. It’s that he is so profitable for the streaming service. That’s a problem because it makes it hard to sort out the difference between what Spotify says it values and what makes it money.
Of course, Joe Rogan is more valuable to Spotify than Neil Young. As popular as Young’s music is, there was really no question that from a business perspective, the company would choose to support Rogan. The company spent $100 million in 2020 for The Joe Rogan Experience, which averages 11 million listeners per episode. That’s a huge draw for its platform, and–more importantly–a huge source of advertising revenue.
The problem is that Spotify’s response makes it look like the company cares more about pure profit than it does about principles. Or, for that matter, about profiting off misinformation that very well could cost people their lives.
Spotify has said that it has guidelines that it applies “consistently and objectively,” when it comes to reviewing content. The company said it removed 20,000 podcast episodes that violate its COVID-19 misinformation policy, though it hasn’t really said what that policy is or how it reviews content for violations.
The Verge reviewed an internal document related to those guidelines which seem to be written to only catch the most egregious examples of misinformation. For example, the guidelines prohibit “Suggesting that wearing a mask will cause the wearer imminent, life-threatening physical harm.”
For what it’s worth, that doesn’t seem to be what people are suggesting. I mean, Surgeons have been wearing medical masks most of the day for decades. I’ve never once heard of any that have suffered “life-threatening physical harm” as a result.
On the other hand, there are plenty of people who talk about masks as harmful, or that they don’t work. There’s a wide gap between “you shouldn’t wear a mask because they don’t work and might be harmful to you,” and “it will cause life-threatening physical harm.”
Or, take Spotify’s prohibition of “promoting or suggesting that the vaccines are designed to cause death.” That means that podcasters can say that the vaccines cause death, as long as they don’t say that’s what they’re designed for.
Spotify seems to want to have it both ways. It wants to say it has guidelines in place to prevent the most egregious examples while writing those guidelines in a way that ensures it can keep its most valuable asset in people’s streaming cue. Spotify would likely argue that its guidelines are broad so as to allow the widest range of free speech on its platform.
Which, to be fair, is a good thing–at least in theory. It’s true that we should want to live in a world where people are free to make content that many people would disagree with. That’s how you can be sure you’ll be allowed to respond with your own perspective.
But, when your most high-profile talent is known for spreading misinformation on your platform–you have to make a choice. Spotify goes out of its way to make the point that Rogan isn’t an employee and that the streaming service isn’t responsible for his content.
Except, when you give someone $100 million to make content exclusively for your platform, that’s a distinction without any real difference. Even if you say you aren’t responsible, it’s still your problem because it’s still your choice.
In the end, Spotify’s decision doesn’t make it look like it’s standing up for free speech or artistic expression. It looks like it’s standing up purely for its own bottom line. What you say means nothing. On the other hand, what you do says everything about what you value. That’s a problem that will stick around long after this controversy has passed.