Censorship in the Age of Streaming

-- By MichaelNicholson - 07 Dec 2021

The Shift to Streaming

In the past, in order to read a book, you would have to go to a bookstore and purchase it, or go to a library and rent it; in order to watch a movie, you would have to go to the store and buy the VCR or DVD, or rent it at a Blockbuster; and in order to listen to music, you would have to purchase an entire album, or wait for the song to play on the radio. It is amazing to see just how promising the concept of streaming, or at least MP3s looked back in 1998 (https://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/15/arts/music-with-a-click-a-new-era-of-music-dawns.html).

“Streaming is a method of viewing video or listening to audio content without actually downloading the media files” (https://www.cloudflare.com/learning/video/what-is-streaming/). With the introduction of streaming, access to content is seemingly unlimited. With this access comes the risk of censorship as users do not actually own their collections – in fact, our access to content is extremely limited as we own nothing. Not only are we giving streaming platforms the ability to guide what we consume, and track what we do consume, but we also provide them the ability to take away what many users likely think they “own.”

This essay seeks to explore how our collective reliance on streaming platforms leaves us susceptible to dangerous censorship campaigns that have historically paved the way for authoritarian, anti-democratic regimes.

Spotify and Apple Music

In the midst of a horrific wave of anti-Asian hate crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic, YG’s 2014 debut album “My Krazy Life” was removed from streaming platforms as one song “Meet The Flockers” contained lyrics about targeting “Chinese neighborhoods.” (https://www.nme.com/news/music/ygs-my-krazy-life-removed-from-streaming-platforms-after-meet-the-flockers-controversy-2914681). While I am by no means defending anti-Asian comments, or any hateful dialogue for that matter, the incident highlights just how susceptible we are as a society to more serious instances of censorship through our reliance on streaming. In the past, this type of content removal would have been entirely impossible. For someone who owns a physical copy of music, or a downloaded version on their hard drive, no one could take away their music without accessing their computer or physically taking their CD or hard drive.

In other cases, where services do not actually remove content, songs or albums will simply be removed from popular playlists or hidden from charts. After a vile homophobic rant at a performance, Spotify and Apple Music removed DaBaby? 's version of the popular song “Levitating” from their playlists (https://uproxx.com/pop/dua-lipa-dababy-levitating-playlists-radio/). While this may have been possible in the past by removing artists from radio stations, its power is much stronger today as streaming revenue is the bulk of artists’ non-touring income. Direct censorship of content in this manner, despite being legal, threatens not only users’ access to content, but also to content producers’ and publishers’ ability to make a living.

Amazon (Store and Kindle)

While these examples may be written off as minor, and even justified, examples of censoring hateful content, they highlight what may become a major threat to freedom of speech and our democratic processes. What if Amazon regularly begins removing books from its Kindle devices or Audible accounts? It has done so before in the past, and evidence shows it may continue to do so in the future. In 2009, Amazon removed books from users’ devices after discovering a rights issue with the publisher. “It’s like having Barnes & Noble sell you a book, charge your Visa and then 3 months later change their mind, credit your card and demand their book be returned.” (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2009/jul/17/amazon-kindle-1984).

Just this year, Amazon removed a book from its platforms “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement” by Ryan T. Anderson for violating an offensive content standard. (https://www.wsj.com/articles/republican-senators-send-letter-to-jeff-bezos-asking-why-amazon-pulled-book-by-conservative-author-11614212331). While it is not a book I would ever want to read, it has gained a lot of attention from conservatives alleging Amazon has engaged in a broad campaign against conservative voices on its platforms. Even if it is a hateful book with no value to society, in the past, it could not be removed from the bookshelf in your living room; however, today it can disappear from your device without you even noticing and without any clear explanation.

Looking Forward

The arguments about streaming censorship mirror many of the arguments about major social media platforms. They all focus largely on “content moderation” and “monopoly power.” (https://www.theverge.com/2021/12/2/22812641/jack-dorsey-twitter-facebook-amazon-zuckerberg-bezos-congress-resign). “These behemoths now dominate the dissemination of information and the coordination of political mobilization.” (https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-11-24/fukuyama-how-save-democracy-technology). Meanwhile, the streaming giants dominate the dissemination of culture, which in many ways informs and shapes our politics.

While today it is easy to look to the conservatives and write off their complaints of censorship as mere whining and self-victimization, it is likely a mistake to do so. What if the views being censored were ones you deeply believed in? As Martin Neimoller stated: “First they came for the Communists. And I did not speak out. Because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Socialists. And I did not speak out. Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists. And I did not speak out. Because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews. And I did not speak out. Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me. And there was no one left. To speak out for me.”

The obvious solution would be for people to go “old school;” but, how many people today would willingly trade the convenience of streaming for the costly and often disorganized process of downloading and storing music? How many people would even know how if they wanted to? While it may not be the most convenient, it is an option that people should seriously consider if they wish to have autonomy in content consumption and not lose control over their own consumption. If people are not willing to abandon streaming, one step that could help is requiring more transparency into the policies that platforms implement in determining acceptable content.

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