Sunday, February 22, 2009

Last FM deny giving data to the RIAA; TechCrunch try a 'you sort of do' defence

CBS's LastFM outpost are hopping mad over a story that TechCrunch ran on Friday, claiming that they'd given the RIAA details of anyone whose scrobbling included unreleased tracks.

Let's just think about that for a moment: why would that information be of any real use to the RIAA? Just because a track is unreleased, it doesn't automatically follow that someone listening to it is doing so illegally: there are legitimate reasons for having an album before it is on sale to the general public. And Last FM have users around the globe, but mostly not in the US, so it seems that the figures would be of less use to the RIAA than, say, the BPI or IFPI. And the RIAA have, belatedly, announced plans not to embark on any more lawsuits against individuals.

However, that the figures would be virtually meaningless and useless doesn't ultimately preclude the music industry seeking them - it's not like the RIAA doesn't enjoy sending itself off on fools' errands.

The TechCrunch story, though, is based on a single, unnamed source, who "heard" it from a friend who heard it from a friend who heard it from another that you'd been messing around. Sorry, had heard it from a friend at CBS. Which is a bit of a weak chain upon which to base such a serious claim.

Last FM and CBS are furious:

Another rejection from systems architect Russ Garrett on Last’s forum: “I’d like to issue a full and categorical denial of this. We’ve never had any request for such data by anyone, and if we did we wouldn’t consent to it. Of course we work with the major labels and provide them with broad statistics, as we would with any other label, but we’d never personally identify our users to a third party - that goes against everything we stand for. As far as I’m concerned Techcrunch have made this whole story up.”

As a result of the story, people have been scrambling to stop their scrobbling:
London developer, Jonty Wareing posted on TechCrunch: “What annoys me is that people are deleting accounts and losing their entire scrobbling history based on shoddy journalism. This hurts those people who have spent years carefully collecting their data far more than last.fm as a whole. We have now stopped the job that removes users marked for deletion, so if you did delete your account in haste and want your scrobbles back, please contact our support team.”

While you can understand Last FM rushing to back-up data in case people are deleting in a funk and want to come back when they realise it's been a lot of silly fuss over nothing, is it entirely ethical to receive a request to delete an account, chuckle that they probably don't mean it, and store the data instead? Isn't this like lovers of poets who are supposed to burn diaries when the poet dies, but flog them to Faber and Faber instead?

Especially since the deletions might not be people going "shit, Last FM are telling people about my illegally downloaded copy of Horse With No Name". It might be that the story has reminded them (or made them aware) of exactly what it means having a system set up so that every time you play a song, the entire internet is made aware of it. They might be deleting not because they believe CBS is handing over data now, but because they don't want to be leaving muddy footprints just in case.

Should Last FM really be deciding their users don't really know their own minds?

Back at TechCrunch, Erick Schonfeld is trying to shore up a story that's fallen apart:
Soon after I posted, however, plenty of unofficial but heartfelt denial came from Last.fm staffers in London, two of which I linked to last night in the update above. The one from Russ Garrett, in particular, raised even more questions. His denial starts out unequivocal, but then he adds a squishy disclaimer:

I’d like to issue a full and categorical denial of this. We’ve never had any request for such data by anyone, and if we did we wouldn’t consent to it.

Of course we work with the major labels and provide them with broad statistics, as we would with any other label, but we’d never personally identify our users to a third party - that goes against everything we stand for.

Hmm, so could the RIAA or a record label use the data to identify people? I never suggested that it was Last.fm that was singling out individuals listening to unreleased tracks. The issue is whether the RIAA or any of its member companies are trying to do so and whether or not Last.fm is helping them.

As Garrett points out, Last.fm shares aggregate listening data with the labels. Are there any unique identifiers associated with this data that could lead back to an individual, despite any precautions Last.fm might take? (It wouldn’t be unprecedented—remember that leaked AOL search data a few years ago?) I sent Garrett an email about 5 hours ago asking him some of these questions.

From the very beginning, I’ve presented this story for what it is: a rumor. Despite my attempts to corroborate it and the subsequent detail I’ve been able to gather, I still don’t have enough information to determine whether it is absolutely true. But I still don’t have enough information to determine that it is absolutely false either. What I do have are a lot of unanswered questions about how exactly Last.fm shares user data with the record industry.

Now, there's some interesting meat in his defence, but most of this just soy-shapes. Posting a story which says "Last FM are handing individual's data over to the RIAA" and then attempting to justify it by saying "ah, but they share their listening stats with record labels" (which, given they pay them money for plays of tracks is hardly a revelation anyway) is an attempt at misdirection rather than justification.


1 comment:

Francis said...

Surely it would be virtually impossible to PROVE that someone had listened to an unreleased track anyway? Given that the scrobbling works off the ID3 tags as fingerprints...and ID3 tags can be edited by anyone at any time.

"Yes your honour I just changed the ID3 tags to make it LOOK like I was listening to a cool new pre-release in order to impress a girl.."

You can't argue with that

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