Spotify's New Anti-Hate Content Policy: Six Questions About What Comes Next

Spotify took a bold step toward dealing with controversial artists on its platform on Thursday (May 10), with a new policy fighting not just “hateful content” in songs but also “hateful conduct” from artists. Its first target? R&B icon R. Kelly, who has faced (and denied) accusations of sexual violence against women for decades.

As of yesterday morning, Kelly’s catalog will remain on the service but will no longer be included in Spotify’s algorithm-based and editorially curated playlists (think Discover Weekly and RapCaviar). But as with any attempt to wield a moral compass in the art world, the new policy comes with a Pandora’s box of questions for listeners and artists themselves. Here are the big ones.

How does Spotify identify “hate content” in music, and what warrants complete removal from the platform?

According to Spotify’s online FAQ, “hate content” covers anything that (deep breath) “expressly and principally promotes, advocates, or incites hatred or violence against a group or individual based on characteristics, including, race, religion, gender identity, sex, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, veteran status, or disability.” To settle on this definition, the platform tapped an alphabet of advocacy groups including GLAAD, Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), The Southern Poverty Law Center and The Anti-Defamation League. Though lengthy, it’s relatively simple: if your songs are explicitly racist, homophobic, anti semitic or otherwise defamatory, you’re out.

To catch hateful content (no easy task, given that Spotify’s song collection pushes past 35 million), the platform employs content monitoring technology to automatically flag suspicious songs, as well as consultations with those advocacy groups and finally, feedback from users, who are invited to report content through an online form.

Here’s where it gets tricky: There are a range of possible punishments, from cutting off promotion of an artist to removing their songs from the service altogether. When it comes to hateful content, Spotify reserves the right to scrap music from the service: “When we are alerted to content that violates our policy,” Spotify writes non-specifically, “we may remove it (in consultation with rights holders).” Spotify already began this practice last August, when it outright removed a handful of white-supremacist and neo-Nazi acts that had been flagged by the Southern Poverty Law Center, wiping many obviously offensive songs, like “Rock Against Islam” by the band Kill, Baby, Kill!

Hateful conduct is a different story. While Spotify may choose not to promote an artist whose outside behavior clashes with its company values, the platform won’t remove that artist’s music altogether (unless, of course, the music itself is determined to be hateful). Users can still find R. Kelly’s catalogue on Spotify proper -- the only difference is that Spotify won’t actively program it into playlists.

Which brings us to our next question...

Where will Spotify draw the line on hateful conduct?

Spotify sets its limit at actions that are “especially harmful or hateful,” like violence against children and sexual violence. So it’s no shock that the company is headlining its new policy with Kelly, who has been accused by multiple women of sexual assault, coercion and running a “sex cult,” allegations amplified by the #MuteRKelly movement launched last month. (He has repeatedly denied all claims.)

Being found guilty of a crime doesn't seem to be a requirement, as Kelly was never convicted of any previous charges (including 21 counts of child pornography in 2002) and has yet to face a jury for the recent accusations. And the legally troubled (but not yet brought to trial) XXXTentacion and Tay-K have both disappeared from Spotify’s curated playlists. Their alleged crimes, on the other hand, have been hard to ignore in recent headlines: XXX is accused of beating and strangling a pregnant woman in 2016 (allegations he has repeatedly denied), while Tay-K’s breakthrough hit “The Race” follows his time on the run from a capital murder charge (he’s currently in jail, awaiting trial).

It’s obvious that these actions don’t align with the “values” Spotify hopes to preserve. But the line blurs when it comes to less sensational crimes -- think illegal possession of drugs or weapons, or punching a security guard, as rapper G-Eazy was recently accused of. And even with serious crimes like sexual assault, it’s difficult to pinpoint when allegations become worthy of intervention. How many accusers and how much evidence is necessary before Spotify steps in? And what about artists who have actually been convicted of crimes?

Does the policy affect Spotify’s non-curated charts playlists?

Kelly is a relatively safe target for Spotify in testing its new policies, given that he hasn’t released an album since 2016 and has no current hits. To put it bluntly, his career isn’t playing a major role in stirring up Spotify’s most urgent playlist programming. But how proactive will Spotify be about intervening with artists who are popular on the charts and making waves?

Take the embattled Chris Brown, whose “Freaky Friday” with Lil Dicky is currently climbing the Billboard Hot 100 and who now faces a lawsuit by a woman who claims she was raped multiple times at a sex party in his home. (Brown was most infamously arrested for his attack on then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009, later pleading guilty to one count of felony assault. He’s since been sued by his former manager Mike G for allegedly attacking him in a “drug-fueled rage” and was recently spotted gripping a woman’s neck in Miami, among a growing list of legal entanglements.) As of writing, “Freaky Friday” is still included in Spotify’s United States Top 50 chart playlist, where it comes in at No. 31, as well as on Today’s Top Hits.

Meanwhile, XXXTentacion’s “Moonlight” still sits at No. 48 on the United States Top 50, despite the artist being actively removed from RapCaviar. Unless content is outright deleted from the platform, Spotify’s charts playlists -- which are strictly based on listenership numbers -- don’t come with the same moral compass as its curated ones.

How will these policies apply to producers, songwriters and others involved in a song?

Most songs come with a handful of players, from producers and songwriters to featured artists. And though Spotify doesn’t address these contributors in its FAQ, its handling of Tay-K provides one example of how the new policy may affect collaborators -- or not. While the rapper has been removed from playlists like RapCaviar, Spin notes that “Hard,” a single put out by label No Jumper featuring Tay-K, is still listed on Most Necessary as of writing. (No Jumper founder Adam Grandmaison was accused of rape in March; he denies all allegations.)

Bands with several members may prove tough to adjudicate, like Crystal Castles, whose former frontwoman Alice Glass accused co-founder Ethan Kath of rape last October (Kath claims these allegations are "pure fiction"). Should Spotify decide to target Kath, it would be impossible to alter his band’s catalogue on Spotify without inadvertently punishing Glass, and other members, too.

Finally, Spotify’s process may get even thornier if producers are made part of the equation. The same day Spotify announced its new system, R&B up-and-comer Jessie Reyez accused music producer Noel "Detail" Fisher of sexual misconduct, following two female artists who earlier this week accused Fisher of rape. And it’s hard not to think of Dr. Luke, who was accused of sexual assault and other abuse by Kesha in a 2014 lawsuit -- he has repeatedly denied all claims -- and is nonetheless responsible for literally dozens of hits by stars including Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj.

It would seem irresponsible and unfair for these artists to be affected by Spotify’s policy by mere association. How much of a song does a troubling collaborator need to be a responsible for before Spotify’s promotion is considered advocacy for content that violates their policies?

What kind of artists are most likely to be affected next?

The list of artists who could face scrutiny from the new policy goes on and on: Brown, Kodak Black, Famous Dex, Rich the Kid, Dr. Dre, NBA YoungBoy, and 6ix9ine all have pasts that may be revisited in the wake of Spotify’s new policies. When Billboard reached out to XXXTentacion’s representation earlier for comment on the rapper’s Spotify standing, a rep asked whether the policy would affect a lengthy list of artists including Gene Simmons from KISS, David Bowie, James Brown, Nick Carter of Backstreet Boys, and Michael Jackson, all legacy artists who have faced allegations of sexual or domestic assault, but have yet to be targeted by Spotify.

Some have wondered whether certain kinds of artists -- namely, black artists and hip-hop artists -- will be scrutinized more than others. Nothing But Thieves, a predominantly white U.K. band accused of sexual assault in late 2017, is still featured on the Rock This playlist. And of course, many bands of the ‘60s and ‘70s could theoretically come under fire: think of Led Zeppelin, whose guitarist Jimmy Page famously dated a 14-year-old while well into his 20s, or of the ever-controversial Guns N’ Roses, whose infamous “One In A Million” in 1988 compared the spread of immigrants to a “fuckin’ disease.” Yet both are still listed on Rock Anthems -- Led Zeppelin is the lead artist, and Guns ‘N’ Roses appear a few tracks down.

(One exception: As Spotify has confirmed to Billboard, Louis C.K., the comedian who admitted to several disturbing instances of sexual misconduct last year, has been removed from comedy playlists.)

Speaking of oldie icons like Led Zeppelin and Guns N’ Roses, it’s also unclear whether Spotify’s policy will work retroactively. For example, rap legend 2Pac was sentenced to prison in 1995 for sexual assault; and Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious was charged with murdering his girlfriend, though he died before trial. Both artists can still be found on Spotify playlists, however. How far will Spotify’s new policy look back into history?

Is removal a life sentence, or will artists be able to make their way back?

Spotify has outlined what will get an artist in trouble to begin with, but there are no clear guidelines for how long anyone’s streaming purgatory can last. Violators of the law serve time, and most are eventually freed (or even acquitted). As XXX and others await trial for their alleged crimes, it’s worth asking: Will Spotify’s punishment system allot anyone the same clean slate?