Crowdsourced Jobs: Great Opportunities or Exploited Labor?

A boycott and a class action lawsuit are putting pressure on the Huffington Post and its founder Arianna Huffington for failing to fairly compensate thousands of bloggers. The controversy began after AOL purchased the news-and-blog website in February for the impressive sum of $315 million. The lawsuit’s primary plaintiff, Jonathan Tasini who blogged for the Huffington Post since 2005,  told Forbes, “In my view, the Huffington Post’s bloggers have essentially been turned into modern-day slaves on Arianna Huffington’s plantation.” The Newspaper Guild, an organization comprised of 34,000 media-industry members, echoed Tasini’s message by joining a boycott of the Huffington Post soon after the sale was announced.

The Huffington Post has never offered its bloggers monetary compensation. In an email to the Newspaper Guild’s president Bernie Lunzer, Huffington Post spokesperson Mario Ruiz said, “People blog on HuffPost for free for the same reason they go on cable TV shows every night for free – because they are passionate about their ideas, want them to be heard by the largest possible audience, and understand the value that that kind of visibility can bring.”

Bloggers and the media industry in general seemed content with the exchanging of labor for exposure until they saw how much the site sold for. Supporters of the boycott and lawsuit feel that they are responsible for a portion of the site’s content and thus deserve a portion of the profits from the sale.

Though the plaintiffs are asking for $100 million in compensation, the real goal seems to be to set a precedent for crowdsourced creative labor. Tasini told Forbes, “This lawsuit is about establishing justice for the bloggers of the Huffington Post and establishing a standard going forward.”

Whether one takes the side of the Huffington Post or the bloggers, the controversy illuminates a question that hovers over all crowdsourced labor like a dark cloud waiting to burst: what is fair compensation for crowdsourced work? Micro-sourcing – when companies take simple repetitive tasks and outsource them via the Web, often to workers in economically depressed countries – is becoming an increasingly popular way to keep labor costs low. But what regulatory agencies are in place to ensure that crowdsourced workers are paid the wage they deserve? How should such an agency calculate a minimum wage for global crowdsourced labor? And more generally, should companies be allowed to pocket huge sums from the free labor of the crowd? These are just some of the questions that employers will have to answer if they are going to continue sourcing the crowd for labor.

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