Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Spotify: The Trade-Off Between Data Privacy and Personalization

-- By Dan Carlston - 11 Mar 2022 (edited 30 Apr 2022)


In an industry facing rampant piracy and accessibility issues, Spotify quickly became a dominant force in the music and podcasting market by combining convenient audio streaming, adaptive playlists, and social aspects of music listening into one easily digestible package. Despite its charms, Spotify’s powerful grip on the music and podcasting world has many problematic implications. The company has received backlash for its inconsistent application of its content and privacy policies as well as its poor compensation for artists and content creators on the platform. Perhaps most troubling is Spotify’s surveillance of its users’ listening habits, which allows the company to extract a detailed mental profile of every individual. Consumers may not always be worried about this issue, as many people enjoy Spotify’s adaptive playlists and dynamic ability to find music that matches their individual tastes. While many would gladly give up their valuable personal data in order to improve Spotify’s services, consumers should be wary of how this data can be used to surveil their everyday lives.

Potential Alternatives

The most straightforward solution to the Spotify “problem” is simply not to use it. Many alternatives to Spotify exist, though most services which approximate its algorithmic playlist and song suggestion features have many of the same privacy concerns. Any music listening service which presents new options based on one’s mood or previous listening history is bound to collect intrusive behavioral data to better instruct its algorithms. Functionally similar platforms like Apple Music, Amazon Music, or Pandora are likely comparably intrusive to Spotify. Services like Bandcamp and Soundcloud also host music and offer artists more flexibility in uploading and controlling content they put on the platforms, but are far from secure in their own right (on top of not having the same suite of features as Spotify). Music piracy has its own set of moral quandaries – Spotify’s business model works in large part as a streamlined, convenient, paid alternative to piracy that gives artists a slice of the profit (no matter how meager). On the other end of the spectrum, more primitive alternatives to discovering new music, such as traditional radio stations or simple word of mouth, cannot hope to approach the personalization and accuracy of Spotify-like systems.

Thus, consumers in some ways have a binary choice between privacy and ultra-convenience in music listening. The technology exists to allow individuals to securely stream music and audio recordings of themselves and others without the ubiquitous monitoring of Spotify (for example, by using an NAS device or small personal server such as FreedomBox). Decentralized streaming platforms that use blockchain technology to mitigate issues like artist compensation are in their infancy, but such services would be necessarily more secure and transparent than the closed system of Spotify. Offline ownership of music, purchasing music directly from artists, or even piracy of music through secure, untraceable means are all superior options to Spotify in terms of privacy, but can also be thought of as a different experience altogether. There is a shared commonality between these options (namely, consumption of recorded audio), but Spotify affords its users precise algorithmic suggestions for future listening, subjective aesthetic and user interface advantages, and an amorphous social component to music listening that ostensibly private and “safer” options do not.

Individualized Solutions

To some, the price of this convenience – one’s personal data and privacy – is simply too high. To others, the trade-off is seemingly worth it. The ideal solution, then, is up to the individual and their valuation of their own data. Once informed of the dystopian levels of surveillance they are being subjected to, some individuals may reject such vehicles of social control in favor of private alternatives. On a global scale, this is difficult to envision, given that people have willingly relinquished even more of their valuable privacy rights to companies like Meta, Twitter, and Apple in exchange for services even more intrusive and obvious than Spotify’s. The hope is that, at least within the audio streaming realm, people will make conscious choices to choose music services which prioritize user privacy more than others, as well as push their governments to enact data privacy legislation and antitrust reform to reduce the power that giants like Spotify hold over the public and increase transparency.

On a surface level, Spotify users can also take steps to reduce the access Spotify has to their data. Using the advanced privacy settings within the app itself, users can block cookies, opt out of tailored ads, disconnect the service from social media apps and other unused services, and make other small changes to the way they use Spotify. Using privacy-focused Internet browsers which limit the use of third-party cookies and make it more difficult to track your data is another potential solution.

The utility of some of these changes is debatable, especially those which still involve using Spotify or similar applications. Ultimately, using Spotify or Spotify-esque platforms at all requires these systems to take in your personal data and feed it into their existing networks. While Spotify’s ease of use and high-quality product have an undoubtable allure, it is worth it for consumers to consider what alternatives exist for accessing music and the value of the personal data being exchanged for the surface-level convenience of the music streaming platform.

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r3 - 30 Apr 2022 - 22:04:51 - DanCarlston
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