Spotify Backs Down on ‘Surveillance’ Recommendation Patent After Continued Protests

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Earlier this month, a collection of activists and musicians called on Spotify to abandon its “terrifying patent” for voice-based recommendations. Now, the Stockholm-based streaming service has signaled that it doesn’t have any immediate plans to use the described technology.

Spotify filed for the patent in question, “Identification of taste attributes from an audio signal,” in February of 2018, and the USPTO approved the application in January of 2021. Essentially, the described technology would allow the music-streaming giant to identify “intonation, stress, and rhythm” in users’ voices, before pinpointing the “emotional state of a speaker providing the voice” and recommending songs accordingly.

But digital rights non-profit advocacy group Fight for the Future coordinated with the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) in a campaign entitled “Stop Spotify Surveillance,” demanding that the platform “publicly abandon this patent and commit to not using invasive surveillance technology on listeners.”

“Such a practice,” the campaign organizers specified, “would be deeply invasive and could expose Spotify users to security threats from stalkers or government surveillance.” Moreover, these organizers touched upon several points that NPO Access Now made in an early-April open letter of its own, opposing the technology’s implementation.

Horacio Gutierrez, who serves as head of global affairs and chief legal officer for Spotify, formally responded to Access Now’s concerns (and, in turn, the concerns of the above-mentioned organizations) in a letter. Noting at the outset that his company takes user privacy “very seriously,” Gutierrez also indicated that “we’re looking forward to having a constructive dialogue.”

Then, prior to diving directly into the patent, the longtime Microsoft higher-up Gutierrez explained that Spotify aims “to innovate in all things audio” – while also recognizing that it has “an obligation to innovate responsibly.”

“Spotify has never implemented the technology described in the patent in any of our products and we have no plans to do so,” the text continues. “Our research and development teams are constantly envisioning and developing new technologies as part of our ongoing innovation cycle. Sometimes those innovations end up being implemented in our products and sometimes they don’t.

“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.”

In a brief follow-up to the letter, the 12-year-old Access Now relayed that it was “pleased to hear that Spotify has no current plans to deploy the technology” – before reiterating calls for the company “to make a public commitment to never use, license, sell, or monetize” said technology.

At the time of this piece’s publishing, Spotify didn’t appear to have addressed the non-profit organization’s latest request pertaining to the “surveillance.” About two weeks ago, Spotify debuted its long-rumored “Hey Spotify” wake word for hands-free music selection, and the “Car Thing” arrived in the United States last week.