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Update on Spotify’s compliance with Russian censorship

The background for this story can be found here: “Spotify made a cowardly choice: to submit to the Kremlin, rather than support Russian dissenters“.
It is an English translation of an article I wrote, published yesterday (March 4) in the major Swedish newspaper Expressen.

The morning after, Spotify reacted to my criticism by publishing a statement in Swedish, claiming to “correct certain errors that have circulated in Swedish media”.

What errors? Mainly, that Spotify’s Moscow office in fact opened already in 2020, and not in 2022. That may certainly be true, but is beside the point. Because what Russian media reported recently was that “Spotify opened a representative office in Russia to comply with Moscow’s new rules”. In other words the office seems to very recently have acquired the formal status of a representative office, as Spotify registered itself at Russia’s censorship agency, Roskomnadzor. That is the point: Spotify actively taking measures to comply with censorship.

Let me now translate the main part of Spotify’s response:

We also have a responsibility to keep our service available in the region for as long as possible, as access to information is of utmost importance. We do not believe, unlike certain people, that it would have been better if we never were in Russia, or that we should discontinue our activities immediately. We have many listeners in Russia and we maintain that it is important that our service can stay in the region so that information can keep flowing. Like other digital platforms, ruled by the same laws as Spotify, we believe that access to fact-based information is more important than ever. That is why we have taken measures against Russian state propaganda, even though some claims the opposite. This Tuesday we also launched a news and information hub that guides users to reliable news sources.

Yeah, information is important. Got it. The more information, the better. So long that the information is fact-based. Great. Let it flow. Let’s even create an “information hub” about the war.

But for whom? That’s where Spotify’s hypocrisy becomes painfully clear.

It’s not entirely clear what is meant by “information hub”, but indeed, Spotify users in the EU have in recent days been recommended news podcasts providing information of the war in Ukraine. Someone at the company put some time to collect a list of reliable news. But for whom?

Spotify certainly does not present these news for users in Russia. It would have been an easy thing for Spotify to guide its Russian users towards reliable news about the war. But Spotify did not do it. Because Russian authorities do not want any talk about the war, and Spotify complies with the censorship. Som much for all talk about how “information can keep flowing”.

Spotify’s Russian users will not ser nor hear a word about the war. Not even about peace. As I wrote before, at a very minimum Spotify could have presented peace-themed playlists for all its users in Russia. But no, it preferred not to acknowledge that anything special is happening at all in Russia.

So what does Spotify communicate to its Russian users? Let’s check the official Instagram account @SpotifyRussia: a happy playlist called “70’s party” together with some tips about retro fashion.


In other words, users in EU and in Russia are treated very differently. Spotify does not mention the war in Russia, and certainly does not guide its users towards reliable news.

In my article, I expressed some doubt that there was much Russian state propaganda in Spotify’s podcast catalogue to begin with. However, I have now found one example of a radio show, produced by Sputnik for an American audience, complaining that it was thrown out of Spotify.

But we also should point out that Spotify’s efforts to remove Russian state propaganda do not apply to its Russian service. This is made quite clear in the previous statement, where Spotify stated:

Earlier in the week we took yet another step when we removed all content from RT and Sputnik from Spotify in EU and in other markets.

It was not removed from Spotify. It was removed from some markets. We do not know exactly which, and Spotify does not want to tell us. But we can be quite sure that Russian state propaganda is still made available by Spotify in Russia – while reliable news are not available there. Everything in accordance with the wishes of the Russian authorities, to which Spotify has willingly submitted.

The main point of this story is not if there is or has been Russian propaganda at Spotify. The point is that Spotify does not allow its Russian users to access reliable news about Russia’s war – even though it boasts about doing this for its Western users.

Spotify made a cowardly choice: to submit to the Kremlin, rather than support Russian dissenters

This is a translation of an article published on March 4 in the Swedish newspaper Expressen.


Spotify has taken a stand. Once again, the most cowardly of all possible alternatives was chosen. The company chose to submit to the Kremlin.
Spotify could have suspended all business in Russia, following countless other companies (eventually also Ikea and H&M).
Yet, a better alternative would have been to keep operating, while declaring openly that their media machine will be available for the dissidents in Russia, for the voices opposing Putin’s war. Such an action could actually have had some impact, precisely at the time when Russias authorities are closing down the country’s last independent media. Then it would maybe just be a matter of time until they also closed down access to Spotify in Russia. But it would at least be a statement, saving the face of Daniel Ek.
At an absolute minimum, Spotify could have let its Russian users face recommended playlists on the theme of “peace”. But they did not even dare to do this.
Instead, Spotify chose to submit to Russia’s censorship laws. It is a shameful choice that should not be forgotten. Let me therefore sum up the background.

One month ago – as Russia continued to gather troops around Ukraine’s borders – Russian media reported that Spotify had opened a representative office in Moscow. At the same time, the company registered itself at the censorship authority Roskomnadzor.
One week ago – when the invasion was underway – I drew attention to this in a tweet. After some quick research, I also noticed that Spotify had posted a job ad. The Moscow office was looking for a manager “to lead the development of our Russian language podcast strategy to further develop the regional podcast ecosystem”.

Here we may take a break to consider the fact that Russian is not only the language of one country, Russia. It is also the native language for millions of Ukrainians and Belarusians. Therefore it is far from obvious that a Russian-language podcast initiative should be based in Russia. For an organization serious about defending free speech, it might have made more sense to locate the office in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv: a predominantly Russian-speaking city, which in recent years has also served as a refuge for many dissidents from Russia and Belarus.
Still, Spotify chose the path of submission. Why? Seemingly just to get a bit closer to the treasuries of the region’s greatest kleptocrats.


After I had drawn attention to Spotify’s operations in Russia, it was picked up by the Swedish news site Breakit. Its reporter made repeated attempts to get a comment from Spotify. However, the western world’s most cowardly media company refused to respond. The job advertisement was subtly taken down. The days went by. The bombs fell on Ukraine. The news of Spotify’s cowardice threatened to spread from Sweden to the rest of the world.

On Wednesday night [March 2], Spotify announced that it is closing its Moscow office – but not its business in Russia, which will keep operating, submitting to the decrees of Roskomnadzor. It should also be noted that this announcement was only made in Swedish and English. Nothing is mentioned at Spotify’s Russian accounts on Twitter or Instagram. Just happy faces and nice music. Don’t mention the war!

When communicating to a Western audience, Spotify claims to have removed all podcasts from the Kremlin’s propaganda agencies RT and Sputnik, as a response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This claim is quite dubious. Where any such podcasts hosted by Spotify to begin with? One week ago, I was searching on Spotify for material with precisely these senders – without finding anything results. While it is possible that some podcasts have been taken down, this seems more like an attempt to signal that one is following the same script as all other digital media corporations.

The problem was never that Spotify would serve as a platform for Putin’s war propaganda. In that context, podcasts do indeed play a marginal role. As a media format, it has yet not gained much popularity in Russia. Youtube is infinitely more important.
Russia’s perhaps biggest youtuber is named Yuri Dud, with 10 million followers. In recent weeks ha has also used his Instagram account to protest. Not only against the war and against Putin’s “imperialist frenzy”, but also more broadly against “the suppression of human will in Russia”.
As I write this, the State Duma has just decided that such utterances will be criminalized and may be punished with prison. At the same time, both Instagram and Youtube have been blocked in Russia. But not Spotify.
It could have chosen to offer a new platform to Yuri Dud, to the radio channel Echo Moskvy which was just pulled off air, or to Russian dissidents in exile. Offer them just a minuscule fraction of the $200 million that has already been paid to Joe Rogan. But no. Spotify chose the path of cowardice.

RASMUS FLEISCHER is a researcher in economic history at Stockholm University. He has co-authored two books on Spotify, Spotify Teardown (MIT Press, 2019) and Den svenska enhörningen (Mondial, 2018).

The next step in the automation of rave? (Transcript from a workshop at Transmediale)

At this year’s Transmediale, I arranged a workshop together with Axel Gagge, Frida Sandström and Pedram Nasouri. Connecting to the festival’s larger theme, we invited the participants to discuss what a dancefloor can be. Our own interventions came from very different perspectives, such as physics, choreography and political activism. Here follows a transcript of my own presentation in the workshop.

In the history of popular entertainment, disco and rave represents a great leap towards more automation. Replacing the live orchestra with a discjockey makes the night club more productive, in strictly economic terms. In such terms, the orchestra and the DJ may could appear as just two ways to produce the same entertainment commodity – dance music. But we all know that there is more to the story than just capitalist efficiency. The dancefloor itself has become something different.

Disco and rave also marked the historical abolishment of the dancing convention typical of Western modernity, namely partner dance – dancing in a couple.
Instead of facing one chosen partner, we now have several alternative directions on the dancefloor. We may dance alone, in our own world, with the face turning in all directions as a part of the dancing body.
We may also dance in smaller groups of friends, facing each other.
Or we find ourselves standing in a line at the dancefloor, everybody facing forward towards the DJ, seeing mostly the backs of other dancers – just like at a conventional rock consert.
If everybody is facing forward, this brings a certain comfort to the dancefloor, because there is no risk of meeting the eyes of other people. We do not say that this is wrong, but we have been thinking about how it changes the way we are dancing, and the way we experience collectivity.

At some dancefloors, there is a sense that the dancing itself has become automated. Not just in the sense of being a slave to the rhythm, but of each body becoming just a part of one big machine. Techno as the highest stage of automation.

But there is also an apparently opposite tendency that we can observe at other dancefloors (or indeed at the same dancefloor, a few meters or a few hours away). Here the dancing is experienced as the immediate expression of individual feelings; each person bringing her own feelings into the common space, in order to share them with others. This is how I understand the concept of “radical self-expression” that is a cornerstone in the official ideology of Burning Man. But our experience from so-called burner raves is that this cult of individuality, in the end, turns out to be quite conformist. There is an unspoken norm for how you should look and how you should move when you are “expressing your true self”.

This difference in how dancing is experiences may correspond to different party environments or architectures.
On the one hand, think of the typical techno bunker; rough concrete walls that do not provide any visual distraction from the sonic experience. Because the bunker is not a complex space, it may allow for more musical complexity. But as a by-product, such spaces also tend to elevate the individual DJ to the center of attention. It simply does not make much sense to look in any other direction, just like it does not make much sense to do anything else than to dance.

In contrast, think about open-air environments that include natural complexity and secret spots, or think about a club filled with visual arts, labyrinthic passages and other surprises. Chill-out opportunities may draw people away from the activity of dancing. But complex environments also makes the DJ appear less central, and invites people to contemplate the collective effort that is behind every rave party.

Do ravers feel that they dance to music delivered by a DJ?
Or that they are invited to a temporary space, created through collective effort?
Or do they identify as consumers who, having paid twenty euro at the door, are entitled to entertainment?
This is a deeply political question, with repercussions far beyond dancefloors.
It surely has a long history. Even before disco, dancefloors could differ much in character.
But historically, the introduction of new machinery on the dancefloor has forced a renegotiation of roles and responsibilities.

The concept of “live music” was invented around 1930, in response to automation. First, cinema orchestras were replaced by sound movies. Soon after, many cafes and restaurants saw themselves economically forced to play recorded music instead of employing performing musicians. Facing a massive unemployment crisis, musicians themselves reacted in contradictory ways. (The situation in fact bear strong parallels to the contemporary debates over robotization and human obsolescence.)

Initially, many musicians reacted with resignation. After observing how machines took the place of human musicians in cinemas, many concluded that “the mechanization of music” would proceed swiftly towards its inevitable ending: a future with no musicians at all, only machines playing fully automated music.
As some tried to formulate a resistance to that scenario, around 1930, the concept of “live music” was established. Musicians and cultural critics initiated a campaign to educate the public about the magic that could only happen in the presence of real, human musicians. Liveness, to put it briefly, is the name of that which can not be reproduced by a machine.
The campaign was not anti-technology. It recognized that recorded music had legitimate uses, but aimed to limit it to particular social settings, letting live performances persist in a protected reserve.
To things about this campaign are worth pointing out here:
1. It was partly successful. In the early 1930s, many had though that automation would soon make dance orchestras obsolete. But this did not happen. Live orchestras would persist as the default source of dance music for another 40 years, that is, until disco arrived.
2. It was never simple to draw a clear line between “live music” and “mechanical music”. How much audio technology could be used by live musicians before their music lost its liveness? As programmable synthesizers began appearing on stage, liveness collapsed as a binary and became more of a spectrum. And on this spectrum, even discjockeys could claim a space as a new kind of semi-live musical performers. Be it that some of today’s superstar DJ’s do not do more on stage than press play and wave their hands. Their personal presence does still matter.

The historical experience of disco and rave also demonstrates how liveness can be reinvented, in response to the introduction of new technology. So far, it seems like a dancefloor needs someone present that can take responsibility for the music and act as a point of projection for the musical experience.

On the other hand, it is not hard to imagine how the automation of entertainment could take another leap, replacing the discjockey with an algorithm.

Unlike a human DJ, the robot DJ could analyze the qualities of all music that has ever been recorded. The same algorithm could also analyze the dancefloor in real time through various kinds of sensors spread out in the room.

From a commercial perspective it certainly would make sense to cut costs by replacing a human DJ with an algorithm. But how would dancefloors react to the disappearance of the DJ? Or to the appearance of surveillance technology? Or to the lack of a given center of attention? Would it force a visual or architectural rearrangement? Would liveness be reinvented in yet another form? What would be the status of the meta-algo-DJ, that is, the human responsible for the choice of a particular algorithm for a particular dancefloor?
Such questions do have a wider significance. I think they can help to reveal certain blind spots in the current debates over automation and artificial intelligence, both in the mainstream and in those parts of the left attracted to “fully automated luxury communism”. There is a widespread tendency to forget that automation is not evenly distributed and does not have one given direction, but also triggers various counter-movements.

Therefore I would now like to open the first of four group discussions by asking: How do you imagine the next step in the automation of rave? What would be a dancefloor at the maximum of automation – and what would its inhabitants care about?

From cyber-libertarianism to national-populism (The many faces of fascism, part 1)

At this year’s Transmediale in Berlin, I did not only give a brief talk about how money is failing, but also was part of a panel titled The many faces of fascism” together with Ewa Majewska and Alex Foti, moderated by Diana McCarthy, at February 1. It was very well attended and some asked me to publish my introductory talk, which I will now do, in two parts.
The second part will go straight at the question of how to understand contemporary fascism. This first part is more of a reflection connecting the topic to the political situation in Sweden, and to the media activist scene to which Transmediale has a long-standing connection.

Part 1

Ten years ago, exactly on this day – the 1st of February, 2008 – I sat on this same stage. It was my first time at Transmediale, and I talked about The Pirate Bay: the famous bittorrent tracker and symbol of file-sharing culture, that had just been indicted by the Swedish state for assisting copyright infringement. I guess that I did somehow represent The Pirate Bay, although I was not directly involved in it. Rather I was part of the group that had started it, and we cooperated in internet activism, sometimes using the frontpage of The Pirate Bay to draw attention to campaigns and pranks. Our identity was that of radical leftists, and we kept a distance to the Pirate Party with its mixture of left-libertarians and right-libertarians. When it came to defending a free and open internet, however, we certainly saw a natural alliance between all kinds of libertarian forces. (Call it cyber-libertarian if you wish.)
We were all opposed to the authoritarians, those who wanted to take control also over flow of information, and to stifle alternative media. We could clearly see this authoritarianism represented by George W Bush and his neoconservatives, by Vladimir Putin and his friend Silvio Berlusconi, by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to just mention a few.
We resisted the attempts of these authoritarian leaders to shut down the digital infrastructure for free and decentralized communications. In that particular context of internet politics, issues rarely had an obvious relation to nationalism or fascism. As it appeared, the national-populists and the fascists did just represent a more extreme version of authoritarianism. And they had not yet entered the Swedish parliament.

That was 10 years ago. Things have changed, for sure.

Last month I visited the website of The Pirate Bay as I wanted to download some tv series episode. I don’t go there very often nowadays, and I must be careful to close the tab immediately; otherwise a javascript will hijack the processing power of my computer to mine some cryptocurrency. Let me add that I don’t know who runs The Pirate Bay anymore. I guess it has fewer visitors than before, but its frontpage has still a significant outreach. So this time I stopped to look at it. Just like in the pranks we used to do, the ordinary logo was exchanged for another image.
It sure looked like a prank, featuring the image of a guy surrounded by a pentagram plus some Hebrew letters. I clicked on it and was filled with disgust as I arrived at a Youtube video. Then guy had his own talkshow centered on national-populist and anti-feminist propaganda, featuring some of the usual alt-right codes. Apparently that is also how to read the Hebrew letters, serving no purpose except that of being open to interpretation as either antisemitic or filosemitic.
The young youtuber, who also declared himself to be a nihilist, looked like the stereotypical hacker guy, precisely the kind that you would previously find in the Pirate Party. He turns out to be a minor star in Sweden’s national-populist counter-culture, using his own immigrant background to accentuate an outsider perspective on a country supposedly taken over by a crazy elite of feminists, who are somehow using immigration to further their own economic interest, at the expense of ordinary working-class Swedes. Paradoxically, he poses as a warrior, talking about class and speaking out for social justice, while at the same time preaching resistance to the so-called “social justice warriors”. Another part of his message is a fierce critique of social media companies like Google and Facebook for, as he claims, designing algorithms that systematically downrate those who dare telling the truth. He finally puts his hope to another youtuber, namely Pewdiepie who have many more followers and who has supposedly been “redpilled”. (This may allude to his antisemitic jokes, his anti-feminist rants, or to something else.) If only Pewdiepie will speak out for the Sweden Democrats before the elections in September, there will be a chance to save Sweden. This was the final point made in the video officially endorsed by The Pirate Bay.

Seeing how The Pirate Bay has now transformed into a propaganda outlet for the Sweden Democrats was a bit shocking in itself, but maybe more noteworthy was how nobody in Sweden really seemed to note it. So many things are moving to the right at the moment. The Pirate Bay, while still used, is not longer considered to be politically interesting. It is associated with the politics of the left/right libertarian alliance of the 00s, which disbanded in the 10s.
After all, there has already been examples of high-profile cyberlibertarians, in Sweden and elsewhere, turning towards the populist right. The list includes the founder of the Pirate Party who was right-wing all along, but at some point decided for a change of alliance. Instead of a libertarian alliance between left and right, a new right-wing alliance was formed between libertarians and national-conservatives.

We were certainly naive, but such a transformation we could not have imagined ten years ago. But in between came Wikileaks and the whole disaster around the person of Julian Assange, who accused Sweden of being “the Saudi Arabia of feminism”. At this point, some male cyber-libertarians were drewn towards a more explicit anti-feminism.

There are numerous parallels outside of Sweden. I could mention the Netherlands, where the whole leadership of the Pirate Party quit to join Thierry Baudet’s new fascist party.
Here in Germany, the leader of AfD’s parliamentary group is invited as a keynote speaker at a large business convention for the blockchain and cryptocurrency community. At the same time, identitarian fascists are reenacting the rhetoric about Stasi 2.0 that used to be a signature of the Pirate Party. Today it seems to be the right-wing that talks most loudly about about “internet freedom”, as they protest new laws that promise protection against hate speech on social media.

To be continued in part 2.

How money is failing

A short talk given by me at the opening of Transmediale 2018 in Berlin this week

Let me talk about how money is failing.

With this, I don’t mean we have too little of it, nor that we have too much of it (although both things might be true).
The failure is not in the lack of one common currency, nor in the lack of a thousand alternative currencies.
No, the failure of money is a failure to establish a stable line of connection between the past, the present and the future.

Here and now, money works perfectly well. It works as a medium of capitalist coercion. Every single day, we all have to get and to spend money. That means work. That means capitalism.

We now celebrate 10 years since the last financial breakdown. So how did it all work out? Did capitalism recover or not? Is the economy growing or shrinking? And do workers today earn more or less, compared to workers one generation before?

The answers are not given. They all depend on how we measure the mysterious substance of money: the purchasing power. This measuring is done with a special device, called a price index.
The price index is that very timeline which makes it possible to read the economy through time. This statistic stands at the centre of all kinds of accounting, of policymaking, and of history writing.

The indexing of prices was never without complications. But only today, it is becoming apparent how profoundly metaphysical it is – that leap from nominal value to real value.

Why is it metaphysical? Because it is never enough to just measure the price of stuff, when the stuff itself is not the same from year to year.
So for every new model of a smartphone, for every new digital service disrupting this or that, the statistics office must try to measure also the change in quality.
They must quantify in monetary terms if the new product represents an improvement or a deterioration, compared to what was available before.
This is done from the standpoint of a fictitious consumer, who does not only have no class and no gender, but who is also able to travel in time with unchanged preferences.
I am not kidding. This is how national accounts are made. When those small “quality adjustments” add up, they determine in what colours we will see the economy at large.

So far, it seems like this fictitious consumer has been in love with new technology. No attempts are made to adjust for the downsides. No statistics office, as far as I know, has tried to calculate the effect of advertising, distraction or surveillance as negative qualities.
Yet, every new feature added to smartphones, every acceleration of computing power, has been reflected in the price index as increases in the purchasing power of money.

Today, even mainstream economists are questioning the official price index. But they question it on the grounds that it should be even more optimistic. They think that the digital revolution brings so much more utility to us, that is not yet captured in numbers.
So may it be. But you could just as well adjust the numbers in the opposite direction.

Right now, we see how the critique of social media is becoming mainstream.
If this critique reaches all the way into the statistics office, they would have to adjust the whole price index, affecting all statistics that rely on it. That could actually throw the world economy in a much darker light.

My point is not that one picture is more right than the other.
Rather, that money itself is moving beyond measure.
It is failing as a medium to compare economic conditions over time.
Personalized pricing is certainly not making it easier.
Let’s face it – no kind of alternative money will solve that puzzle.
There is not one true way to account for economic change.
So let us draw the consequences.

Let’s expose economics as the most relativist of sciences.

Let’s forget the idea of a basic income given in money, as there can never be a guarantee for what a given sum of money can buy.

Let’s learn together how to talk about inequality in terms that are not monetary, just like we have learned how to talk about justice without reference to a god.

Money does exist. It is a medium of power. But it is not a suitable medium for redistribution, and not for envisioning a common future.

Writing the early history of Spotify (excerpt from a forthcoming book)

As mentioned in my previous post, and by my colleague Pelle, we just delivered the manuscript to MIT Press for our academic book focusing on Spotify. The book is co-written by five researchers; I have been mainly in charge of writing a history of Spotify (which includes not only a chronological narrative, but also a whole lot of theoretical and methodological considerations that may have a broader relevance for those writing digital history).

Just like Pelle has previously posted a snippet at his blog, I will here post a short section cut out from the historical chapter. (Remember, this is just the first manuscript and will of course be edited on the way to the final product. Also, this snippet is lacking the footnotes and references that are in the manuscript.)

/ / / / /

The Beta Period (2007–2008)
On the first of May 2007, Spotify released its initial beta version to a smaller circle of acquaintances. Among those were some of Sweden’s leading technology bloggers. This immediately resulted in a number of enthusiastic blog posts, and the comment fields were flooded with invite requests. Being invited to use Spotify was a sign of exclusivity, and Spotify controlled the growth of the circle by rationing the number of invites that existing users could pass on. If one would look at the early user demographics it would probably be rather affluent, dominated by men in the age between 25 to 40 years, living in inner-city Stockholm, working with technology or media. Many of these saw themselves as passionated fans of new pop music, but their enthusiasm for digital technology was probably even stronger.

One of the first beta testers was Eric Wahlforss, a part-time musician and entrepreneur who at this time was just about to found SoundCloud—another kind of music streaming service (that Spotify years later would consider for acquisition). Wahlforss immediately recognized Spotify as “a preview of the future.” It may be noted, however, that his enthusiastic blog post had little, if anything, to do with music:

The thing that wows me the most is that the app is faster than iTunes on my local machine. Repeat, faster than iTunes. And now we’re talking fancy peer-to-peer architectures, special audio codecs, custom databases, etc, etc. […] If this thing scales it will be bigger than Skype. Big, big ups to the Spotify team.

Spotify’s first interface did indeed look very similar to iTunes: the user could search for music and add tracks to personal playlists. In addition, it also offered a radio-like mode of listening in which the user was asked to select one of 18 predefined music genres (and one or several decades). Compared to today’s personalized radio stations, this seems primitive indeed—but in fact, this was how Spotify Radio worked until late 2011.

Illustration 7. The possible options for the user in Spotify’s early radio interface—present already in the beta version. Screenshot taken during the summer of 2010.

Spotify, during its Beta Period, consolidated a kind of on-demand doctrine as a service centered around the search box, giving access to “whatever you want.” The user was effectively conceived as a sovereign individual who already knew exactly what he or she wanted to listen to, and did not need help with music recommendations. Indeed, this doctrine was probably reinforced by the sample of beta testers.

The buzz over Spotify intensified in early 2008, essentially focusing on two aspects. First, that the new service would actually ‘make music free’ by relying entirely on advertising. Secondly, buzzmakers affirmed the move ‘from ownership to access’ and presented the personal archiving of MP3’s as a practice soon to be outdated. If commentators saw anything lacking in the beta version, it was that users still could not easily upload their self-made music to Spotify—as a web 2.0 service was supposed to function. However, it was a feature that many expected to see implemented soon.

Period A (2008–2009)
The first public version of Spotify was launched in October 2008. But what exactly did it mean to ‘launch’ a music service that was already up and running, serving thousands of users each day? Maybe it is better to say that Spotify was legalized. For a year and a half, Spotify’s beta had in effect been run as a pirate service, distributing music without any license to do so—to users that had come across an invite. As stated, in many cases the music files had originated from The Pirate Bay and other file-sharing networks, but this changed when Spotify signed its first deal with the big record companies and collecting societies—in essence, moving itself into legal territory.

To many of the existing users at the time—and some of us researchers living in Stockholm were initial listeners—what really happened in October 2008, however, was that parts of their playlists suddenly became unavailable. Spotify simply had to remove unlicensed music from its service, and in early 2009, even more music disappeared on request of record companies that enforced country-specific listening restrictions. In addition, only users with a special invite could access Spotify Free; this did not change with the official launch. The only real addition was the addition of paid version, Spotify Premium. Now being legal, the company could now also begin to really sell advertisement—which gradually became ever more present for users of Spotify Free.

Spotify’s ‘launch,’ in other words, was not the launch of a new service, but the launch of new efforts to monetize an existing service.

/ / / / /

And so the chapter goes on, structuring the history of Spotify according to the successive rounds of financing which has let the company survive, despite making ever larger losses.

Oh no, now I said it again: “the history of…”. According to a newly published article in Rethinking History this is a “bizarre notion”, because history is not the same as the past. I do agree that it would be more correct to say that our book provides a history of Spotify, because it could certainly be written otherwise. But so far, I dare to say that our forthcoming book provides the only academic attempt to write Spotify’s history at any length. Yet, the history told in chapter one is only a part of the book.

Spotify Teardown. Inside the Black Box of Streaming Music is to be published by MIT Press in 2018.

A strong message from the European Union: don’t block websites!

Today the European Commissioner Štefan Füle issued a strong statement on the blocking of The Pirate Bay in Denmark:

The ban on the social platform The Pirate Bay in Denmark raises grave concerns and casts doubt on Denmark’s stated commitment to European values and standards.

Freedom of expression, a fundamental right in any democratic society, includes the right to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority. Citizens must be free to communicate and choose freely the means to do it. This obviously includes access to the internet.

Open debate promotes transparency and accountability and ultimately reinforces democracy; such debate needs to be strengthened everywhere, including in Denmark.

Just kidding! The statement was actually not about The Pirate Bay. It was about the recent blocking of another website in another European country. Maybe the statement would seem a bit stronger if it was consequently applied also to cases within the European Union.

thx for the tip, Geraldine!

Some thoughts about the idea of “internet freedom” in times of counter-revolution

A few days ago at Transmediale in Berlin, I took part in a panel discussion under the fuzzy title “After the revolution(s): Internet freedoms and the post-digital twilight“.
What follows is an attempt to summarize my input to that panel. It has already been posted at Nettime.

# # #

The revolution is over“, stands as a motto for this year’s Transmediale. I guess that I share the feeling, but I think the statement is wrong. Instead of talking about some revolution in the past, I think we should talk about the ongoing counter-revolution and situate that in history.

When thinking about the direction in which the internet is developing, we must go beyond the simplified opposition of “old times” versus “new times”. In order to do that, we must periodize the history of the internet.
When trying to do that, I have come to regard year 2007 as a turning-point. That was when the counter-revolution took over. And on its flags, the counter-revolutionary forces had written words like: social, share, mobile, stream, access, open…

For now, we don’t need to name these counter-revolutionary forces. Although it is obvious that the counter-revolution on the internet is largely about centralization and monopolization, it would be wrong to reduce this process with a few giant corporations.
The monopolizing tendency has been a much broader thing and has also ruined the potential in projects like The Pirate Bay and Wikileaks. If such projects initially had the ambition to set examples, to be copied and multiplied, they were caught in a dynamic where they seemed to have no alternative but to stage a new riot every week, or to fade away. Or take the Pirate Parties, which have tended to monopolize internet-related issues which are then re-encoded in the language of rights, endlessy re-enacting the immanent contradictions of liberal ideology: copyright vs. privacy, privacy vs. transparency, etc. etc.
Nowadays, I feel that the very concept of “internet freedom” is caught in the same kind of double-bind, making it increasingly hard to use. And this feeling of mine is probably just another aspect of the counter-revolution.

Hito Steyrl is to the point: “The internet is not dead. It’s undead and it’s everywhere.” It feels awkward, she writes, “obviously completely surveilled, monopolized, and sanitized by common sense, copyright, control and conformism.”

But there was never any digital revolution in the past. If we could ever talk about a digital revolution, it could only mean the third industrial revolution, which has been going on for decades and which is definitely not about to end. But as an industrial revolution, that is simply an acceleration in the continuous process of minimizing the need for human labour in the production of commodities. That process is driven by the competition over profits on the market, and the current crisis is only intensifying that competition, pushing all kinds of corporations towards Big Data and threatening to eliminate those who fail to live up to the new standards of data mining.

But during this long process, during the third industrial revolution, there has been times when the uses of digital technologies has tended to break away from this industrial logic.
There were a few interesting years in the 1990s, before the dotcom bubble.
And there were a few interesting years after the dotcom crash, in the beginning of our century.
These two episodes in the history of the internet were indeed no revolution. But these times saw the multiplication of autonomous innovation, and of new forms of collective practice which where not easily integrated in any economy, and not very suited for data mining.

I think it makes more sense to talk about a digital counter-revolution than to talk about a digital revolution. But the current counter-revolution did indeed react against something, against a subversive or revolutionary potential which were building up in the years following the dotcom crash.

If the internet tended towards a decentralized or even revolutionary direction between 2001 and 2007, this must somehow be related to the financial dynamics in global capitalism. The afterglow of the dotcom bubble began in one crisis, but ended with the onset of the next crisis. How come?
In the very beginning of this century, capital fled from the dotcom sector. For capitalism as a system, the dotcom crash revealed a serious threat of deflation, but central banks injected enormous amounts of stimulative liquidity, credits which rushed towards other sectors, most notably housing, building up a new and even larger bubble. However, on the internet of 2001–2007 there was a relative lack of venture capital.
The dotcom crash had revealed a surplus of bandwidth, of hardware and of highly skilled hackers. Many of these hackers which had been working in the dotcom sector were no longer employed (or working as consultants effectively on part-time), meaning that they had free time to experiment with available resources.
Out of the early 00’s recession grew a boom for free software and file-sharing. Innovation tended to be about new protocols (from RSS to bittorrent) rather than new platforms. The new standards for sociality on the www – the blog, the wiki, the threaded forum – could all be run DIY on simple servers with open-source software.

The afterglow of the dotcom bubble, in other words, allowed for a certain degree of autonomous innovation on the internet. It resulted in a net characterized with a plurality of interfaces: the older duality of horizontal hypertext (HTTP) and hierarchical folders (FTP) was complemented by various kinds of feeds and flows, not to forget the tag clouds and the virtual realities, as well as the search engines.

This amounted to a plurality of speeds: many degrees of fast and slow communication could co-exist in the everyday use of the net. We don’t have that plurality anymore. Since 2007, time on the internet is being homogenized.

The counter-revolution is slowly abolishing hypertext as well as folder hierarchies, in favour of a new monoculture. Today’s undead internet has a universal interface based on only two functions: the search and the feed.

The search is there for you when you already know what you’re looking for. When you don’t know, you can always get fed by your feed, the singular and personalized home feed, whose function is to homogenize time, synchronizing our attention at one singular speed. What could a concept like “internet freedom” posibly mean in such an environment?

Of course I agree that decentralization is the way to go. But by now it should be obvious, that they way to go is not to build decentralized copies of Facebook or Twitter. We need something else, and we can’t say what it is without lots of more experimentation. But who will do all this experimentation? The hacker surplus do not exist any more. The skilled hackers are now employd to develop platforms and apps which conform to the new monoculture and with the new standards of data mining. Some years ago, young programmers in Sweden were swarming to promote P2P file-sharing in solidarity with the Pirate Bay – soon after, they were all employed by Spotify.

I don’t know if we are now entering a second dotcom bubble to be followed by a second dotcom crash. But to me, it’s clear that the counter-revolution began when venture capital once again began to rush towards the internet.

Art Hack Day at Transmediale: how to present austerity as spontaneity

It was six years since I last visited Transmediale, the annual festival for Medienkunst (new media art) in Berlin. Already last time, in 2008, it was obvious that the concept of new media art is in a crisis, simply because the artistic interest in new media is no longer limited to a distinct current within the art world. Instead of using the label “new media art”, Transmediale now has a much looser self-definition.

The revolution is over. Welcome to the afterglow.” That was the motto for this year’s Transmediale, with lots of discussion about the “post-digital”, a concept which now has a myriad of definitions. More specifically, many participants talked about the post-Snowden depression and whether artistic practice is able to provide relevant reflections on the arcane levels of surveillance on today’s internet.
Compared to earlier years, it is clear that futurity and optimism is out in this scene. Instead, the attempts to reflect over the state of the net and the state of the world are now permeated by a sense of crisis.

In other words: a crisis of the form, and crisis as a main content. These are two aspects of crisis which are explicitly and thoroughly discussed at an event like Transmediale.

But there is a third aspect of crisis which you don’t hear much about. That is the much more boring fact that the economic crisis is resulting in budget cuts also for events like this. Last time I was at Transmediale, in early 2008, that global crisis was just about to break out. When comparing that year’s festival and this year’s, I can sense the shrinking economy.

In 2008, the exhibition at Transmediale was not exactly great. But it did feature artworks from a lot of the big names in the new media art scene, selected by a curator. Most of these artworks were based on thorough research and it was clear that the artists had been working on their projects for a long time. I take for granted that the featured artists was paid by Transmediale.

In 2014, Transmediale has abolished that kind of curated exhibition in favour of a so-called Art Hack Day. This was presented as a collaborative “grassroots event”, intented to “make transparent the production process of art”. I don’t buy that talk about transparency, as long as they aren’t explicit about the economy behind the exhibition. As far as I understand (from talking with several participating artists) the concept of Art Hack Day boils down to this: artists work for free.

More than 80 artist/hackers have been invited to create an exhibit from scratch during 48 hours

And they get paid zero. It’s actually the artists who pay to participate in the exhibition at Transmediale, as they have to finance their materials themselves.

That the artworks were produced in 48 hours is obviously a myth. Some of the best installations were made with e-waste that the artists had made considerable efforts to collect. Nigerian dumps provided material for “Data retention – the resurrection” (by Bengt Sjölén & Nicklas Marelius), in which flashes from the web cache of a found hard disk are presented on a screen, as well as for the installation “Back to sender” (by Dani Ploeger & Jelili Atiku). Neo-colonialism was also thematized in relation to the mining boom in northern Sweden in “Mobile mining” (by Kristina, Lindström, Åsa Ståhl & Nicklas Marelius), yet another work which involved the process of collecting e-waste on another place.

These and other examples makes it obvious that the “Art Hack Day” was not the spontaneous creation of art during two days. Rather, it was an exhibition of artworks which were already finished before the start of the “hack”. Many of these works took lots of time for the artists and also involved significant costs for materials and travels. If the aim is to “make transparent the production process of art”, this should have been made clear. The glossy talk about art as a spontaneous “hack” is rather concealing the real process.

So let’s be honest: “Art Hack Day” is a way for art institutions to get artist to work for free.

I am not saying this to condemn neither the Transmediale arrangers, nor the participating artists. But if an art festival which talks about transparency on the one hand, and crisis on the other hand, it should first of all be transparent about its own austerities.

And what happened with those big names of new media art, formerly featured in exhibitions like Transmediale’s? My impression is that many of these have been moving from art to academia during the years of crisis. They are probably spending more time teaching and researching at universities, less with presenting stuff at exhibitions. They still participate at festivals like Transmediale, but not in the exhibition part but the conference part. While their art students are the ones who are expected to work for free to produce artworks that fill the exhibition.

Update: I have now changed the subtitle of this post. “How to get artists to work without pay” is not only a boring title, but also misleading. My aim was not to scandalize the fact that artists and others are working without pay for art institutions; that is routine, after all. I may add that I myself accepted to give a small talk at Transmediale for no pay (and only some expenses covered).
The reason that I bothered to write this post was rather how this administration of austerity is rationalized. The language of “hacking” is used to present the art production as way more spontaneous than it really is, which adds another level of hypocrisy in the talk about transparency. For these reasons, I instead choosed to subtitle this post “how to present austerity as spontaneity”.

More about the problem with The Pirate Bay and the future of file-sharing

Shortly after I wrote a blog post about the future of P2P after The Pirate Bay, I was contacted by a journalist at Forbes. She asked my to expand my thoughts about why The Pirate Bay has become a problem. Here is my answer:

Already one year ago, I wrote a blog post in Swedish saying that it should be clear that The Pirate Bay is in a process of decay, and that process seems to be irreversible. The most obvious symptom is how The Pirate Bay has begun to lend out its good reputation to distributors of adware or malware. In recent years, The Pirate Bay has regularly offered various kinds of privacy services which require users to install a program in .exe format without the source code being open – which should in itself be a warning sign – and as it has turned out, these programs have installed adware. But there is also a general tendency of stagnation, covered in empty gestures.

The thing is that we don’t know who is running The Pirate Bay these days, which is indeed a result of the civil lawsuits against it – if you run The Pirate Bay you have to keep quiet about it or be sued to hell. It has now also become impossible for “legitimate” companies to buy advertising space there, because they would also be threatened with legal action. The result is that The Pirate Bay is pushed towards a rather ugly kind of commercialization – towards that corner of the internet where pornography meets spamming and malware. I don’t think that the people who now run The Pirate Bay has chosen this way because they’re evil or greedy, but they are obviously very opportunistic and don’t hesitate to sell out the site’s reputation slowly. It’s a sad story and I don’t believe The Pirate Bay could or should be saved, because I don’t think the bittorrent protocol is the end of P2P history.

Parts of that answer was then quoted in Forbes’ piece, “As Pirate Bay launches anti-censorship browser, has it lost its way?

I was also asked to explain my idea of “sharing not only a file but a context”. My answer:

I already tried to sketch out my idea in my blog post. But to put it very simple, I still love Soulseek and use it a lot for exploring music. It is a technologically stagnant project, but it still works and you can still browse other people’s music folders and find stuff that you didn’t know that you wanted in the first place. It’s beautiful and it works because people on Soulseek are not afraid of anti-piracy agencies, because they are not there to share the latest blockbuster – they are there because they love music. That’s the spirit of file-sharing I think we should revive.

It would not be too hard to update that kind of file-sharing networks so that they use the more efficient torrent technology for file transfers. It would not require many months of programming, I believe, but the result that I hope for would also not be very commercial.

Even since 2007, I think that the general development of the web is going in a boring direction. The general tendency is not only massive centralization to a few “cloud” services, but also a standardization of interfaces: the empty search box, the personal news feed, the automatic recommendation – that is what we are offered. We are now at a point when I think that good old hypertext and good old folder browsing may even be a radical thing. Decentralization is also a radical thing, but it can mean many things and when I envision a better future of file-sharing the aim is not about privacy but curiousity, solidarity and autonomy.