Digital Sweatshops?

One of the things I think is fascinating is how our perspective on an economic issue is defined by the issue’s effects on either buyers or sellers. Consider our perspective on falling media prices, whether it be the declining price of music to the availability of free content on the Internet. Most of us, as consumers but not producers of this content, would view it as an unalloyed positive development. But what about the producers?

I used to use a service called Mechanical Turk. It was a “work at home” job that had employers put job offers on the websites and producers (like myself) accept jobs for pay. What always amazed me was the low wage paid by these jobs. For instance, the average pay for a “service writer” in the United States is currently $35K. I just went on Mechanical Turk and found a job to write a 400 word article on a health insurance companies for $2.50. You would have to write 14,000 articles per year in order to make the average pay for a low-level writer in the United States. And the example I gave is one of the more generous ones — I’ve seen other jobs offer $.25 to write about topics.

My first reaction was to think about the implications of these low-paying jobs on labor laws and ethical issues. If you think it’s unethical to buy clothes made in a sweatshop, how ethical is it to read an article written by someone making less than US minimum wage? The analogy to outsourcing is more apt than one might initially realize, since Amazon Turk offers pay in Indian rupees as well as US dollars. Similarly, should companies be able to contract work out and avoid labor laws simply by having people work at home as “contractors?” I worked for a text answering company called kgb_ that paid individuals $.10 per text and required “contractors” to work certain hours a month. From personal experience, I can tell you that it is almost IMPOSSIBLE to make minimum wage working that job. Should it be legal to hire workers and DESIGN the job to violate labor requirements? If we exempt online jobs from these laws, what’s the point of having those laws for non-online jobs?

The broader question that Internet users have to encounter is: Do you get what you pay for? Here is an answer from Google Answers concerning the sale of “International Editions” of certain textbooks. You don’t have to read it, but I am always amazed at the detail and precision with which the question was answered. Let’s take a sample of what you give up by refusing to pay for content. Or this one, which I found to be even more appalling. Now, there are several problems with this answer, and I would ordinarily be willing to give the writer of this answer the benefit of the doubt.  However, a Google search for “Amazon international edition” brings up Yahoo! Answers as its first result.

I read another article here about a company called Demand Media, which pays users to create content that is ad-supported. On the one hand, this content is made free by the Internet obviously benefits those who would not want to pay for the content provided.  On the other hand, the low pay provided by many of these services   That text messaging service I mentioned earlier had a database of all of the questions they had previously answered.  What amazed me was how TERRIBLE most of theseanswers were; they were often irrelevant or, worse, wrong.

If I am looking for an answer to a question like “How do I donate my bike?” I can deal with a 1:15 clip that tells me to a) choose charities out of the phone book, b) make sure they are legitimate, and then c) call them and offer to donate your bike.  All in all, this advice is not the “best” advice, but I’m probably not TOO concerned about making sure that I have chosen the “best” way to donate my bike.  But does the same logic apply for philosophy? literature? economics? politics?  I’m especially concerned that websites will figure out how to “game” Google’s rankings by choosing keywords carefully or by simply producing enough content that it will inevitably dominate the Internet.  If that happens, all content on the Internet will truly be “free” but we will lose quality in the process.

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