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Following the Joe Rogan-caused boycott, Spotify launches Safety Advisory Council

By | Published on Tuesday 14 June 2022


Spotify yesterday announced the launch of a new Safety Advisory Council, the streaming firm’s latest attempt to overcome criticism regarding how it handles misleading and offensive content that is available on the platform. The Council of third party experts will, the company says, “help Spotify evolve its policies and products in a safe way while making sure we respect creator expression”.

How social media and user-upload platforms handle so called harmful content – which can be content that is offensive, unlawful, abusive or misleading – has been a big talking point for years now, of course, with law-makers actively considering proposals to formally increase the responsibilities of digital platforms in this domain in multiple jurisdictions. The constant challenge is how to protect users from such harmful content while also respecting the free speech rights of creators.

Spotify was generally on the periphery of that debate until recently, it not technically being a social media or user-upload platform, even though pretty much anyone can push music or podcast content into its library. There was a little controversy in 2018 when Spotify introduced new policies regarding music that was considered hateful – or which was made by musicians accused of hateful conduct – but that debate fizzled out quite quickly.

But then, of course, Spotify’s policies for dealing with problematic content became front page news in January thanks to Neil Young’s big boycott in protest over the ‘Joe Rogan Experience’ podcast, and specifically various guests who had featured on the programme who expressed controversial views regarding COVID-19 and ongoing efforts to combat the virus, controversial views that went against the scientific consensus but which were rarely challenged by Rogan.

Young’s boycott – which saw much of his music removed from Spotify – was prompted by an open letter signed by more than 250 scientists and medics that said that Rogan had “a concerning history of broadcasting misinformation, particularly regarding the COVID-19 pandemic”. And, they added, Spotify should be acting to stop the distribution of such misinformation, especially via a podcast to which has the exclusive rights.

With Young’s boycott becoming such a big news story, Rogan was forced to apologise for not researching his controversial guests better so that he could challenge their more controversial opinions. Meanwhile Spotify boss Daniel Ek published a blog post insisting that his company did have policies in place to deal with harmful content, but – he conceded – it needed to be much more transparent regarding what those policies were.

To that end Spotify published its platform rules, plus Ek promised to follow the lead of other digital companies in signposting resources that explain the scientific consensus on COVID matters whenever the coronavirus is discussed on podcasts available on the platform.

Although when India Arie joined the Spotify boycott, mainly because of Rogan’s past use of racist language, it became clear that some specific measures to deal with COVID misinformation were not going to be enough to address the concerns of the company’s critics.

The launch of the Safety Advisory Council is therefore part of ongoing efforts to better deal with harmful content – and, crucially, to be seen to better deal with harmful content. Spotify says that it has consulted many of the third party experts on the Council before, but by creating the Council that expertise will now be accessed more regularly, more formally and more visibly.

Those experts are, Spotify adds, “individuals and organisations around the world with deep expertise in areas that are key to navigating the online safety space. At a high level, the Council’s mission is to help Spotify evolve its policies and products in a safe way while making sure we respect creator expression”.

Although similar to things like the Facebook Oversight Board, the new Spotify Safety Advisory Council won’t be quite as hands-on or powerful, it providing, well, advice rather than oversight.

Spotify goes on: “Our Council members will advise our teams in key areas like policy and safety-feature development as well as guide our approach to equity, impact and academic research. Council members will not make enforcement decisions about specific content or creators. However, their feedback will inform how we shape our high-level policies and the internal processes our teams follow to ensure that policies are applied consistently and at scale around the world”.

“While Spotify has been seeking feedback from many of these founding members for years”, it continues, “we’re excited to further expand and be more transparent about our safety partnerships. As our product continues to grow and evolve, Council membership will grow and evolve along with it. In the months ahead, we will work closely with founding members to expand the Council, with the goal of broadening regional and linguistic representation as well as adding additional experts in the equity and impact space”.

Although clearly in part a response to the Rogan controversy, Spotify’s Head Of Trust And Safety, Sarah Hoyle, insisted to Reuters that the Council was not formed in reaction to “any particular creator or situation”, but was a recognition of the challenges faced by any digital platform where pretty much anyone can post content.

Meanwhile, the streaming firm’s Global Head Of Public Affairs Dustee Jenkins added: “The idea is to bring in these world-renowned experts, many of whom have been in this space for a number of years, to realise a relationship with them. And to ensure that it’s not talking to them when we’re in the middle of a situation … instead, we’re meeting with them on a pretty regular basis, so that we can be much more proactive about how we’re thinking about these issues across the company”.

At launch the Council consists of the following people: Professor Danielle Citron, Dr Mary Anne Franks, Alex Holmes, Dr Jonas Kaiser, Dr Ronaldo Lemos, Dr Christer Mattsson, Dr Tanu Mitra, Desmond Upton Patton and Megan Phelps-Roper.

Plus Professor Susan Benesch and Tonei Glavinic representing the Dangerous Speech Project; Henry Tuck and Milo Comerford representing the Institute For Strategic Dialogue; Mark Little and Áine Kerr representing Kinzen; Emma Llansó representing the Center For Democracy And Technology; and Dr Katherine Pieper and Dr Stacy L Smith representing the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.