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Dawn of the Digital Sweatshop

All over the world, workers are paid pennies to do menial online tasks in a largely unregulated, multimillion-dollar industry. Welcome to the Internet's factory floor.

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What Ipeirotis' work — often cited as some of the most reliable academic study of microtasking out there — reveals, more than anything, is that the Mechanical Turk workforce is far from a monolith. But it also shows that a not-insignificant number of people, in this country and abroad, aren't just using Turk as a means to make a couple bucks here and there — they're using it to replace a job.

Robin, who asked to be identified only by her first name, started Turking a couple years ago as a means of supplementing her salary. She liked the idea of working from home, and of being able to set her own schedule and pick her own tasks. She quickly found that it wasn't all that simple, though, especially considering the time it takes to find and qualify for the right project. "They make it sound like you can just do a few tasks in your free time in between other things," she wrote in an email. "But if you worked like that, I believe you would make about a dollar a day."

Rob (whose name has been changed) started Turking at around the same time Robin did, after reading about the site on a blog. He already had a full-time job in tech and didn't need the money, but he figured this was a means of making some pocket change during the time he'd be watching TV anyway. Since then, he has completed some 2,000 tasks over countless hours, with a near-perfect 98 percent approval rate. In that entire time, he's brought in a grand total of $157.

"It's not worth it at all," he said, his tone halfway between sheepish and matter-of-fact. "Return an aluminum can and you'll make more money." Of the half-dozen current and former Turkers I spoke to for this story, none said they made more than a couple dollars an hour, and the vast majority earned far less. "The money earned is so minimal, it's laughable," said Robin, who stopped Turking as soon as she no longer needed to financially. "You really have to be working all day long at top speed to earn minimum wage."

Even that might be an overstatement: Numbers are hard to track and vary from worker to worker, but Ipeirotis has estimated the average hourly wage to be roughly $2, while Joel Ross of UC Irvine's Department of Informatics places it closer to $1.25 — and whatever it is, it's certainly lower than the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

But that's not all: Embedded in Amazon's 5,200-plus-word Terms of Use agreement is a clause that essentially allows employers to reject an employee's work whenever they want, no questions asked. Talk to enough Turkers and most of them will relay some version of the same story: They completed a task, all or part of which was rejected, and never found out why.

When Robin's work was rejected, she knew exactly what had happened. She emailed an Amazon representative to try to get the issue sorted out — less because of the money and more because of what a mistake can mean: "An error like that lowers your score and makes you less desirable as a worker," she explained. She sent customer service two messages and never received a response.

In 2008, Silberman, along with Turkopticon's cofounder, Lilly Irani, created a HIT to ask workers what their ideal "turker's bill of rights would look like." The vast majority of the 67 answers included some kind of recourse for work that's rejected. "It's disheartening to have your work rejected for something as simple as claiming an 'Apple' and a 'Giraffe' are not identical," wrote one Turker. "I don't care about the penny I didn't earn for [not] knowing the difference between an apple and a giraffe, but I'm angry that MT will take requester's money but not manage, oversee, or mediate the problems and injustices on their site."

This is all of a piece with a phenomenon economists call "information asymmetry," and it's a fundamental part of Turk's system — as well as what draws detractors to it. Workers see only what requesters want them to see. Their work can be rejected for reasons unknown, but they'll never know if the requester used it anyway and was just trying to stiff them. They can be effectively blacklisted, via low approval ratings. They could, theoretically, be working for companies whose policies or politics they don't agree with. And they have no meaningful recourse for any of this. That imbalance of power is a big part of why Silberman and Irani, a UC Irvine informatics Ph.D candidate, founded Turkopticon: as a means of allowing Turkers to do the work of weeding out bad requesters that Amazon refused to. It's a big problem for Jones, the labor activist, as well, insofar as the more opaque a system is, the fewer protections employees have: "The concern is accountability," she said. "This sounds like an opportunity for major abuses to happen to workers."

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