Spotify is the king of audio. The company, once a streaming music upstart, conquered the music industry in the 2010s and then barreled into the podcast business, signing the polarizing host Joe Rogan to an exclusive licensing pact in 2020.
But that $100 million deal is now causing headaches for Spotify amid a furor over Covid-19 misinformation on Rogan's show, thrusting the company into the same kinds of thorny debates over speech and social responsibility that have vexed other major tech firms in recent years.
Spotify, facing intense criticism from musicians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell as well as growing scrutiny from anti-misinformation advocates, now finds itself embroiled in a public relations mess that has become increasingly familiar to Silicon Valley giants like Facebook and Google.
However, Spotify arguably has more in common with entertainment enterprises like Netflix that increasingly must decide how to draw lines around the original programming they have funded and hosted while also competing for big-name talent.
One expert suggested that the podcast side of Spotify's business had grown more quickly than the company's ability to keep its voices under control.
"The reason why this is a problem is that Spotify, like other major online platforms, has become more than just a company," said Michael Karanicolas, the executive director of the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law and Policy. "It has emerged among the new knowledge institutions that our society increasingly relies on for their information and self-education."
"Newspapers have an editorial process. Academics have peer review. Spotify has ... what?" he said.
Mike Kadin, a podcasting industry executive, said he believes Spotify and other media companies should pay closer attention to the reputational risks that could come with an exclusive talent deal, especially with celebrities who are known for contentious public statements, like Rogan.
"I think this is part of the danger of large podcasting platforms doing exclusive deals," he said. "They have an exclusive licensing deal [that] puts these platforms in a funky spot, where they have to be thoughtful about who they're aligning their brand and business with."
Rogan, in a 10-minute video posted to Instagram, defended himself Sunday but vowed to "try harder" to offer more balance on his podcast.
Daniel Ek, the company's chief executive, announced a series of new measures Sunday aimed at combating misinformation on the service, including adding content advisories to podcast episodes about Covid and publicly publishing its platform rules - a move reminiscent of those made by other tech companies.
But he also underlined the challenge of policing content that is published on the platform, striking a tone similar to that of Silicon Valley executives such as Mark Zuckerberg.
"We know we have a critical role to play in supporting creator expression while balancing it with the safety of our users," Ek said in a statement. "In that role, it is important to me that we don't take on the position of being content censor while also making sure that there are rules in place and consequences for those who violate them."
In recent years, Big Tech companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter have drawn fierce criticism for some of the content that shows up on their platforms, from racist hate speech and political conspiracy theories to misinformation about the Covid pandemic.
In general, though, company leaders have stressed what they view as the practical difficulty and philosophical undesirability of policing every video, photo, news article and public post that appears on their websites and apps.
Ek's comment drew a mixed reaction from tech industry observers.
In an interview, Karanicolas described Spotify's misinformation policy as "the same playbook we've seen from other platforms, particularly Facebook, repeatedly over the past decade."
"Unfortunately," he added, "these reactions are perennially focused on putting out a particular public relations fire rather than thinking structurally about how to prevent similar controversies going forward."
Kadin, the CEO of RedCircle, a podcast growth and monetization platform, said the strife over Rogan has less to do with questions of content moderation and more to do with a simple fact: Spotify pays Rogan to be there.
"I think it's unfair for [Spotify] to hide behind a content policy question," he said. "They are paying Joe Rogan quite a bit of money, so it's different than a content moderation question to me."
"They don't directly create the show, but they finance the show and bring it exclusively to their platform," he said. "It's a direct deal. In my view, they can't hide behind neutrality."
Spotify declined to comment after NBC News requested information about Rogan's listenership and whether the platform saw an uptick in subscription cancellations after Neil Young's ultimatum. The company did not immediately respond to a separate request for comment on criticism of its content policies.
Rogan, a comedian and former sitcom actor with a devoted following, is not the only big name to sign an exclusive distribution agreement with Spotify.
In summer 2019, for example, Spotify signed an exclusive partnership deal with Barack and Michelle Obama's production company, Higher Ground, to produce audio shows that are available only on its streaming service.
In some respects, the furor at Spotify mirrors the recent headaches at Netflix after the release of the latest Dave Chappelle stand-up special, "The Closer." Chappelle's special, criticized for anti-LGBTQ comments, attracted intense criticism and riled some company employees.
Netflix, like Spotify when it comes to Rogan, effectively stood by Chappelle, ignoring calls to remove "The Closer" from the platform and defending the comedian's creative freedom.
Spotify has not publicly released data about the global listenership for "The Joe Rogan Experience," but the show is widely believed to be popular, especially with young men. It is not known exactly how much advertising revenue the show generates.
Karanicolas said while he could not "speak to the specific metrics underlying" Spotify's decision to license Rogan's show, he believed it was likely a simple calculation for the company.
"Spotify, like virtually every other company, is going to follow the money and attempt to maximize growth and shareholder value by maximizing their audience," he said.
Karanicolas sees this as a problem.
He added that while Facebook or YouTube probably do not have the resources required to "watch every video that gets posted to their platforms," Spotify "could absolutely assign a staffer to watch every one of Rogan's videos for problematic content."
Emma Llansó, the director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, emphasized the practical difficulty of audio content moderation at scale, which could combine elements of voice recognition, transcription and textual analysis.
"There's a lot of room for error for mistranscribing, misunderstanding what people are saying, so there aren't a lot of great tools out there for services that might want to do a lot of audio content moderation," Llansó said.
Regardless of Spotify's ability to implement automated moderation, she said she believes that the company publishing its platform rules will lead it down the path of other major tech companies, toward more moderation.
"The more rules you have, the more people expect your rules to be enforced on the service," she said.
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