Techcrunch Story: Did Last.fm Just Hand Over User Listening Data To the RIAA?

21 Feb

Yesterday evening, Erick Schonfeld at Techcrunch ran this story about UK based (and CBS owned) music service, last.fm.

In a nutshell, it cites one unnamed CBS source as saying that last.fm handed over user data to the RIAA (the story implies that it relates to the unreleased U2 album that’s been doing the rounds on file sharing services). If true this story would be massively damaging to last.fm: the service doesn’t work without the scrobbler (little app that uploads a record of what music you’ve played to the site), and if users are worried that their personal info (IP, email etc) is at risk they just won’t use it.   Everywhere I look I see people saying they’re going to ditch it.

A number of last.fm staffers have flat out denied the claim, although there’s been no word from the CBS mothership just yet.  I don’t know whether it’s true or not (though I would be very, very surprised if it were: last.fm spent years building that trust with their users, would be astonishingly reckless to throw that away like this), what I am surprised about is the silence from Techcrunch. They published the story late in the day yesterday, then a few hours later (after the unofficial denials had come in from the last.fm staffers) updated the post with this:

Update: Some more denials from Last.FMers, including one of the co-founders, Richard Jones, in comments, who says this story is “utter nonsense and totally untrue,” and another one from Russ Garrett, a systems architect.

Not ‘we’re looking into this further’ or ‘looks like we made a mistake’, just ‘some people at last.fm are saying it’s not true’.

It really is surprising to me that an industry leading blog would publish such a serious allegation on the basis of one unidentified source, and not do any followup investigation in the light of the denials above.  By ignoring the response and simply posting that addendum, Techcrunch’s credibility, in my eyes, is seriously damaged.  Publishing a story like that without input from the company involved (or identifying a second source to back up the claims) is at best shoddy journalism, at worst a hatchet job.  Schonfeld says he ‘contacted both CBS and the RIAA’, but went ahead and published the story regardless without comment from either.

Not impressed.   And especially not impressed with Techcrunch’s silence.  If the story is true, stand behind it and back it up.  If it’s not, issue an apology and retraction.

For the record, I’ve been a user for years, and will continue to be.  FWIW I don’t really like U2 much.

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11 Responses to “Techcrunch Story: Did Last.fm Just Hand Over User Listening Data To the RIAA?”

  1. dermoth February 21, 2009 at 12:04 pm #

    The nice thing about this is the speed with which Last.fm’s refutations have spread; the Digg link for the Techcrunch story was quickly flagged as “possibly inaccurate”, and the denial is currently ensconces on the front page “top stories” bit.

    The surprising thing is that people flipped the killswitch on their accounts so quickly over this one story. You have to be fairly guileless to scrobble unreleased material (and worse still, U2 – the horror, the horror) in the first place, but then to immediately kill your account because of a Techcrunch story written in ALLEGEDLY font? I’ve got to finish building magicbeansmarket.com…

  2. kaimac February 21, 2009 at 12:36 pm #

    Yea, agree on both counts. Good that it’s getting buried on digg, but the story has still done damage, regardless of whether it’s true or not.

  3. Babs February 21, 2009 at 12:40 pm #

    TechCrunch published at the end of the working day, US time. It was late night, approaching midnight our time in the UK and yet, Last.fm staff were still around! TechCrunch were no doubt waiting for the story to take off before Last.fm had a chance to respond, but staff have been working long hours and weekends lately, especially since the redundancies, so that’s TechCrunch wrong-footed. It’s not unusual to see Last.fm staff working long after midnight.

    If anyone’s reputation was damaged by this story, it’s TechCrunch’s.

    Same here, I’m a long-term user. I’m not ditching my 96,725 scrobbles for anybody!

  4. kaimac February 21, 2009 at 1:36 pm #

    I think (though not certain) that they published about lunchtime EST, which is getting on for the end of the day UK time. Even if nobody was available for comment out of London, it’s pretty surprising that they didn’t get hold of anyone at CBS in the US.

  5. sully February 21, 2009 at 1:39 pm #

    Techcrunch is not a news source. It is a gossip rag. They’ve been getting some big ones dead wrong in the last few months and causing real damage to companies. But of course they won’t change their ways until the see their uniques start to drop.

  6. Dave White February 21, 2009 at 3:46 pm #

    I’d be very surprised if Last.fm actually did this. Disregarding the time they’ve spent building trust in their userbase, there’d be a whole legal privacy issue here. I haven’t looked at the privacy policy, but I would be amazed if the UK data protection laws allowed this kind of data transfer en-masse.

  7. kaimac February 21, 2009 at 4:57 pm #

    @sully yea, I hear you. This one seems to be particularly irresponsible to me though. Maybe because I’ve been a fan of last.fm for a while it just seems that way to me…

    @dave I dunno about that. I would expect that when you sign up with them you waive your rights to that data. after all, they make their money off users’ listening habits.

  8. Marc Sirkin February 22, 2009 at 10:49 am #

    Wait, you don’t like U2?

  9. TOmmy February 22, 2009 at 11:04 am #

    I am glad techcrunch published this story. I find people who are getting offended and foul mouthed over this are the ones the general public needs to be suspicious over. This is too big of an issue to let slip and its up to Last.Fm to put a final denial in stone without the extra explanations they are giving. As it stands, my desire to not be wrongly sued is much higher than caring for the existence of any company–last.fm included. Therefore, I have uninstalled the last.fm client and will delete my account if we don’t here anything more concrete from last.fm than what’s already been posted. I’m very dismayed that last.fm has put a hold on the process that deletes accounts. That’s very worrisome in my book.

    Again, me NOT getting wrongly sued is far more important than the reputation of any company. Techcrunch may have screwed up but its up to last.fm to re-earn user trust. In the end, if and when we start seeing users that illegally downloaded the U2 album start to get legal notices either from the RIAA or their ISP, then we’ll have confirmation that last.fm gave in. Until then, we’ll never know.

  10. kaimac February 22, 2009 at 12:07 pm #

    @marc joshua tree was alright I suppose. and I admire the africa saving efforts. other than that, meh

    @tommy scrobbled tracks wouldn’t stand up in court. nobody is going to get sued: i could name a track anything I wanted and it would scrobble with that name. and besides, anyone could look at my profile on the last.fm site and see what tracks I’d been playing.

    I’m more concerned with the fact that techcrunch published the story without proper grounds (in my opinion), which has lead to folks like yourself uninstalling and deleting your account. one unnamed, uncorroborated source? very weak.

  11. Rowaa[SR13] February 23, 2009 at 6:40 am #

    @tommy, please, delete your life – that way you aren’t going to be sued for sure. You’re too stupid to use it anyway.

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