Understanding Fair Labor Practices in a Networked Age

Kneese, Tamara; Rosenblat, Alex

Internet-enabled technologies allow people to connect in unprecedented ways. Although everyday social practices are widespread and well known, these same tools are reconfiguring key aspects of work. Crowdsourcing and distributed labor technologies increasingly allow companies to outsource everything from mundane tasks (e.g., Amazon Mechanical Turk) to professional services (e.g., oDesk). Sharing economy – or peer economy – tools (e.g., Airbnb) allow people to barter goods or services or get paid for these exchanges outside of the dominant business framework. These services have enabled new forms of contract or freelance labor and reduced risk for companies; however, there is often an increase in risk for the associated laborers. At the same time, divisions between what constitutes work, hobby, and volunteerism get blurred, especially as many organizations rely on volunteer labor under the assumption that it’s mutually beneficial (e.g., blogs and journalistic enterprises that republish work or see the offer of a platform as valuable in and of itself). While all of these labor issues have unmediated precedents (e.g., free internships), technology magnifies the scale of these practices, minimizes the transactional friction, and increases the visibility of unpaid and freelance work. Collectively, this raises critical questions about what fair labor looks like in a networked world, where boundaries dissolve and existing mechanisms of labor protection do not address the varied work scenarios now available.