Last.fm: privacy invasion or site of resistance?

Did last.fm dry snitch on you?

Last Friday, TechCrunch posted an article provocatively titled, Did Last.fm Just Hand Over User Listening Data To the RIAA?. Based on a friend-of-a-friend tip, the piece alleged that Last.fm had “handed over” user data to facilitate the identification of U2 fans with leaked copies of the band’s forthcoming album, No Line on the Horizon. (This was before Universal Music Group copped to leaking the album and U2 started streaming it voluntarily.)

Within an hour and a half – midnight for the London-based Last.fm – the allegations were debunked. Employees responded to concerned readers directly,

“[Last.fm would] never personally identify our users to a third party.”

Last.fm’s reputation is saved, TechCrunch are lying liars, the RIAA still sucks, and then I found five dollars. Right?

Not quite. Last.fm, purchased by CBS Interactive in 2007, represents the tension driving this era in computing culture, a constant negotiation of value and privacy. I’ll enrich your database by telling you how many times I’ve rewound Las Mulas De Moreno today (five and counting) and you tell me about similar artists to obsess over tomorrow.

Billboard and Soundscan look like halfblind guesswork in comparison with the charts made possible by this kind of deep data collection. Last.fm’s revenue may draw largely from advertising but if they were to start selling custom data packages to interested corporations, would anyone stop scrobbling?

Like many FCers, I was initially so alarmed at the notion that Last.fm would “hand over” user data that I ignored the fact that Last.fm’s core operations are basically in a constant state of dry snitching on its users. Want to know who is listening to “Las Mulas”? Click the Listeners tab, and start crawling profiles for identifying information.

Last.fm Listener tab

For some of us, this is reason enough to cease participation. In fact, several FC members have already begun brainstorming a non-commercial, decentralized alternative. Others propose ruining the data reported to Last.fm by deliberately spoofing the scrobbler software with falsified metadata.

But what about those FCers who use Last.fm, enjoy the services it provides, and accept its exchange of privacy for value? Do we demand they sacrifice this pleasure? To what end?

Rather than struggle against enjoyment of Last.fm, what if we were to maximize it? What would an enthusiastic embrace and exploration of a service like Last.fm reveal? Would we find its boundaries and be inspired to develop a successor with even greater capacity? Would it reveal new entrepreneurial opportunities that better protect user privacy without sacrificing the potential benefits of an enormous dataset?

Is this a positive, proactive, fanatic activism? Or surrender to an uncritical consumption?

BOOMBOX from Ely Kim on Vimeo.

Consider the case of YouTube, where thousands of people have been recently burned by spurious copyright claims. Every day YouTube users create and upload videos like the one above that incidentally infringe one or more copyrights. Quite often the videos – again, like the one above – are disabled because of a DMCA takedown notice. If the email we receive at YouTomb is any indication, these users rarely intended to flaunt the law or make a stand for free culture. Rather, they come to us confused at being disciplined for behaving in a way that felt ethically appropriate.

When large copyright holding organizations attempt to withdraw from popular web services, as Warner Music Group has done with both Last.fm and YouTube, they can no longer paint the users of those services as pirates, outsiders, or radicals as they once did with Napster and now do with the Pirate Bay. Instead, their withdrawal brands them perverse, confused, and out of step with widely accepted social practice.

What implications might this reversal have for the free culture activist?

Do we want those YouTube users to familiarize themselves with the arcane constraints of copyright law and the numerous variations we’ve made available? Or should the users be left alone and the regulatory institutions be compelled to struggle with a set of laws and expectations ill-suited to contemporary media ethics?

Imagine a free culture pro-activism that consistently supports, encourages, defends, and extends the everyday practices of users of services like Last.fm and YouTube. What might we gain through such radical participation?

Leave Yours +

3 Comments

  1. Hmm… a central point in using Last.fm though involves publishing your data. If you don’t want to share what songs you’ve been listening to… why in the world would you scrobble to Last.fm? Even if Last.fm doesn’t provide any stats, all someone has to do is subscribe to your RSS feed to generate whatever stats they want (or scrape to profile page to create a feed).

    Complaining that your listening patterns are revealed over Last.fm is like complaining that your bookmarks are revealed on delicious.

    (Having a public profile is clearly different than Last.fm handing over user data, like your email address or zip code or something to another computer so they can go after you.)

  2. Ben Moskowitz

    Alternatives to last.fm are not likely to work for the same reason that Facebook alternatives are not likely to work. Whatever their design deficiencies, these sites are valuable because their user bases have hit critical mass. Kevin has blogged about this phenomenon re: YouTube. Decentralization/divestiture from services also entails fragmenting the semantic links and communities around the content.

    By design, last.fm requires individual users to disclose what they’re listening to. There’s no way around that.

    IMHO, last.fm should not be a site of resistance. if anything, it’s the kind of service that FCers would want to fully embrace. Everyone should scrobble! 1.7 million last.fm’ers recently listened to the Beatles. That music is not legally available for download, and I think its safe to say that few of those users actually purchased and ripped a Beatles record. This kind of data is a manifest—not estimated, not actuarial—representation of the listening habits of everyday users. If most iTunes users were to scrobble, it would cast some much needed sunlight on aggregate music consumption patterns. A community like last.fm paints a vivid picture of the sea change that’s occurred in the last ten years, providing copyfighters with ammo for future legal and legislative battles.

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