Monday, July 26, 2010

Work and the Internet

For context about why I care, here is a slight paraphrasing from grant proposal I recently wrote:
For the last eight years, I have been working to develop an area of computer science called "human computation," which studies how to harness the combined power of humans and computers to solve problems that would be impossible for either to solve alone. This growing academic field now has an annual workshop, a community with researchers from the top computer science programs in the world, and has directly influenced the popular online trend of crowdsourcing, in which crowds of people are enticed to perform work over the Internet. Subsequent to the development of this area, for example, Amazon created Mechanical Turk, a marketplace for human computation tasks (or “human intelligence tasks” as they call them), which is now used and studied by hundreds of researchers worldwide. Since then, other similar services have emerged where workers are paid to perform micro-tasks that are hard for computers.

An example of human computation is reCAPTCHA, in which people help digitize books by typing CAPTCHAs on the Internet. To date, over 750 million unique people—more than 10% of humanity—have helped transcribe at least one word through reCAPTCHA.

All human computation systems must have a way to motivate the users to participate. In the case of reCAPTCHA, the value proposition is as follows: by typing a CAPTCHA, the user gets access to a desired resource like a free email account or tickets to a concert, and in exchange they perform ten seconds of work that is utilized to help transcribe a book. In the case of Mechanical Turk, users are paid a few cents to perform each task.

A discussion that I've had with multiple people over the last few years is whether systems like Mechanical Turk, in which real money is exchanged, should be legislated so that workers are fairly compensated. You see, the average hourly rate of most workers in such sites is usually well below the minimum wage of most third world countries. As a concrete example, the minimum wage in Guatemala is approximately $1/hour, whereas it's not rare to see tasks on Mechanical Turk in which the effective hourly rate is $0.30/hour. (It's amazing that many of the workers on Mechanical Turk come from inside the United States.) Some labor economists would tell you that this is ok: if people are willing to work for such low rates, who is to stop them? However, most countries have some notion of a minimum wage in their laws, including the United States, so in essence as a country we do not believe in an unregulated labor market.

Recently I have heard more than one company saying something like: "We use Mechanical Turk because otherwise we would have to pay people $7/hour to do this task." In other words: "We use Mechanical Turk to get around the minimum wage laws." As wrong as it may sound to some, this is currently ok. In the United States, "independent contractors" are typically not covered by minimum wage laws, so while I'm not a lawyer I believe using Mechanical Turk to get around minimum wage is as legal as hiring independent contractors instead of full-time employees.

But the question remains: Should sites like Mechanical Turk be regulated? Perhaps not today, but if the Internet or crowdsourcing really is the future of work, we should at least be thinking about it.

Here are some issues that make this complicated:

  • Labor markets like Mechanical Turk are truly global, with workers coming from many different countries. Can the same minimum wage be applied to all?

  • Most countries have immigration work laws that prevent people without the proper visa to work inside that country. Should these still apply when the work is performed over the Internet? In many cases it's not even possible to tell where the worker is located, so are these laws even enforceable?

  • Assume we decide as a country that labor markets like Mechanical Turk should be legislated and a minimum wage is imposed. Some of the work on human computation involves transforming tasks into enjoyable games so that people perform them in exchange for entertainment. Is it ok to pay people less (or nothing) if the task is fun?

  • What about writing a review for a book online or rating a video? These are concrete pieces of work that benefit the Web sites, but that nobody seems to object to doing for free.