Spotify Faces Continued Pushback Over Voice Recognition Technology

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Photo Credit: Haithem Ferdi

In April, certain activists and musicians called on Spotify to abandon a “terrifying patent” – designed to analyze users’ voices and recommend music accordingly – that the Stockholm-based company had obtained towards 2021’s start. Now, despite issuing a formal response on the subject seven months ago, Spotify is once again facing pushback over voice-recognition technology.

The leading music streaming platform filed for the patent at the center of the controversy – “Identification of taste attributes from an audio signal” – back in February of 2018, and as noted, the USPTO approved this application in January. In brief, the patent describes a technology that would pinpoint “intonation, stress, and rhythm” in one’s voice prior to identifying the “emotional state” of the speaker at hand. And it’s this emotional state that Spotify (and possibly other companies down the line, observers have indicated) would consider when making song recommendations.

Entities and individuals including tech-focused non-profit Access Now then voiced their criticism of the patent and its long-term possibilities – drawing a formal response from Spotify soon thereafter. Specifically, head of global affairs and chief legal officer Horacio Gutierrez maintained in a letter that Spotify takes user privacy “very seriously.”

“Spotify has never implemented the technology described in the patent in any of our products and we have no plans to do so,” proceeded the longtime Microsoft exec Gutierrez. “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,” his letter concluded.

Access Now subsequently said that it was “pleased” with Spotify’s lack of plans to use the technology imminently – albeit while urging higher-ups “to make a public commitment to never use, license, sell, or monetize” said technology. It doesn’t appear that this requested public commitment (or other satisfactory guarantees) arrived, however, for Access Now has fired off a new letter, addressed to Spotify shareholders including Tencent, Baillie Gifford, and Morgan Stanley (but not Universal Music Group).

Citing recent comments from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen as the driving factor behind the renewed opposition to Spotify’s patent – “we cannot merely trust the good will of a tech company when it comes down to a choice between profit maximization and human rights” – the text then implores the recipients “to hold the company accountable for developing a tool that would seriously compromise human rights.”

After reiterating overarching concerns – such as the technology’s potential to enable “emotional manipulation,” “discrimination,” and “privacy violations” (in terms of government requests for information and otherwise) – Access Now’s message concludes with a final call to action for the targeted Spotify shareholders.

“As influential stakeholders, you are uniquely placed to ensure that Spotify’s technology will not be used to instigate human rights abuses. This is why we are urging you to take a stand in defense of human dignity, and to call on Spotify to commit to never use, license, sell, or monetize this pernicious technology.”

At the time of this piece’s publishing, none of the “influential stakeholders” (nor Spotify itself) appeared to have commented on the letter via social media or through a press release. In May, Spotify was named in a patent infringement lawsuit centering on its contextual-advertising functions.