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The Ethics of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk

Last week I described my experiences using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service to transcribe audio recordings of oral histories I’ve collected. As I explained in that post, it appears that I ended up paying about $2 to $3 an hour to the people who did my transcription work. On the one hand, that’s a great wage to pay if you’re looking to hire some “Turkers,” as they’re sometimes called. On the other hand, that’s a lousy wage to earn if you’re a Turker.

There are some very strong feelings about both the advantages and disadvantages of the economics of the system, as evidenced by this conversation following Andy Baio’s blog post explaining how to have your audio transcribed inexpensively. I’m curious what ProfHacker readers think. For the sake of argument, I’d like to ask why actually paying someone a nominal hourly wage to complete simple tasks is somehow a shady practice but getting someone to contribute to your project for free is perfectly acceptable. (I’m looking in your direction, LibriVox, Project Gutenberg, and Wikipedia.)

So who are the people who do the work for Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service? According to Panos Ipeirotis, of New York University’s School of Business, they are young, overwhelmingly American, more likely to be female than male, and mostly college educated. Why do they participate in the service as Turkers? Ipeirotis reports that there are many reasons, but earning money and finding something interesting to do seem to be the predominant reasons.

Of course, the economic concern is only one of many. In this short clip, for example, Jonathan Zittrain — of Harvard Law’s Berman Center for Internet and Society — outlines “a number of worries” both economic (are “Turkers” being exploited?) and moral (are they being paid to do things they would be opposed to if they understood the larger project of which they are an anonymous part?):

See also his longer talk, posted on YouTube, in which he discusses a variety of different “crowdsourcing” projects in addition to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk: “Minds for Sale.” Note that when you get to that YouTube page there’s a nice time-indexed table of contents in the righthand column, once you click the “more info” link.

What are your thoughts, loyal ProfHacker readers? Ethical? Unethical? Should there be a “code of conduct” for using Amazon Mechanical Turk?

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