Muting R Kelly? We shouldn’t let tech giants like Spotify make moral decisions for us

The music streaming service has a new policy on “hate content and hateful conduct”, but who gets to decide what to censor?

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I have a simple rule for whether I will consume art created by an abusive man. If the art justifies or condones the abuse in any way, it’s off limits – so I can watch Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, whereas my stomach turns at Louis CK’s I Love You, Daddy. Polanski’s 2002 Holocaust drama features no allusion to – or justification of – his 1977 rape of a 13-year-old girl. Comedian CK’s 2017 film, on the other hand, explores and condones the sexualisation of a young woman by lecherous, powerful men – it is grossly similar to accusations the star himself has faced and admitted to.

There are big, gaping holes in my simple rule, and you might already find yourself shaking your head and/or picking up your letter-writing pen. But that’s OK – because this is my rule, and I’m not imposing it on anyone. The same can’t be said for Spotify, the music-streaming company that has announced a new policy on “Hate Content and Hateful Conduct” which resulted in artists R Kelly and XXXTentacion being banned from its playlists. “When an artist or creator does something that is especially harmful or hateful (for example, violence against children and sexual violence), it may affect the ways we work with or support that artist or creator,” read the policy. Over the past 25 years, R Kelly has faced multiple allegations of sexually abusing minors, while XXXTentacion is facing charges for aggravated battery of a pregnant woman.

To be clear, both artists’ music is still available on Spotify, but the service has removed their music from its curated playlists and “algorithmic recommendations”: meaning it won’t be promoted to new listeners. Despite the censorship being so limited, there has already been significant backlash, with the Daily Beast website questioning whether Spotify’s choice of artists to excommunicate was “possibly racist”. Why have only two black artists been penalised so far, and not any of the countless white musicians accused of abuse?

Spotify might have an answer to this question, but it isn’t forthcoming – and this is where the problem lies. My rule – simplistic as it might be – is undeniably transparent, while Spotify’s undeniably is not.

Who gets to decide what to censor? Who arbitrates what is morally acceptable? 

These may be deep philosophical questions, but in 2018 the answers aren’t abstract. Who decides? Spotify, YouTube, Facebook and Google.

It’s no secret that a small handful of very large companies control much of our access to the internet. In the past, if a record store owner decided not to stock an artist’s latest album, that was OK – you could go elsewhere. Spotify’s decision affects its 170 million monthly active users, and they deserve transparency. In the past, you could look that record store owner in the face and ask why. Today, you don’t even know if it’s a human or an algorithm making Spotify’s difficult decisions – and even if you did, you wouldn’t be able to chat to either.

This is a long-standing problem, and it’s alarming that we still get very few explanations from the tech giants that rule our online world. In June 2017, Facebook’s rules for penalising hate speech were leaked. The guidelines explained that “Someone shoot Trump” was a Facebook status that should immediately be deleted, but “To snap a bitch’s neck, make sure to apply all your pressure to the middle of her throat” was fine to remain on the site.

Spotify’s decision appears to have arisen from a social media campaign to #MuteRKelly. But here’s the thing: when we ask Spotify, Facebook and YouTube to moderate their platforms in line with our morals, we are in fact begging already unchecked powers to become global censors.

Why should we trust them? In 2017, Google was fined €2.4bn by the EU for demoting its competitors in search results, while YouTube (which, while we’re on the subject of monopolies, is owned by Google) came under fire for restricting access to LGBT videos. As Facebook’s leaked guidelines revealed, it is dangerous to trust a faceless multi-billion-pound company to be the arbiter of what is morally acceptable.

The #MuteRKelly movement shows that instead, we can use our individual purchasing power to boycott abusive artists. If and when companies such as Spotify come on board, we must demand transparency. Who, exactly, is the person at Spotify making the final call? How do they make their decisions?

In response to Spotify pulling XXXTentacion’s music from its playlists, the rapper’s team released a list of 19 other artists and asked whether the company would also remove their work. Musicians listed included David Bowie, who has been accused of statutory rape, and Michael Jackson, who was found not guilty of molesting a minor.

It was a weak defence from XXXTentacion’s team (“Buuut Muuum, they started the culture of rape and abuse first!”), yet it does raise many questions. R Kelly was found not guilty of making child pornography. Is Spotify making its decisions based on allegations or convictions? Was the video evidence in the R Kelly case taken into account? What happens if XXXTentacion is found not guilty? Is John Lennon’s alleged domestic violence OK because it happened so long ago? Does an artist’s death change anything?

Many think Spotify has dug its own grave by setting itself up for these unanswerable questions – but in actual fact, these questions matter very little. Although we are asking them, at present Spotify has no obligation to answer. This lack of accountability and transparency is precisely why we must think twice before demanding that tech giants censor our world. Our own rules can be simple – theirs can’t be. 

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh

This article appears in the 18 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel and the impossible war