Why it Matters that Mechanical Turk Is no Longer Accepting Foreign Turkers

A couple weeks ago, Amazon Mechanical Turk — the online service that pays pennies for basic, virtual “microtasks” and has been at turns lionized for its efficiency and cost-effectiveness and vilified for what some see as human-rights and labor violations — quietly announced that it would no longer be accepting foreign workers. Well, actually, it didn’t announce it — a popular industry blog figured it out. Amazon presented this is a simple business decision: The work coming from out of the US was less reliable, the company wrote in a statement, and harder to regulate. I’m not suggesting that any of this is untrue — in a vast, diffuse, anonymous market, the farther away people are (and the less familiar they are with the English language and American cultural tropes) the harder it is to work with them. It’d be easy to read this announcement and think it doesn’t mean much (except, of course, for the foreign Turkers — a majority of the site’s user base — who are now excluded from what might’ve been a crucial income source, though that’s a different story.)

But this decision isn’t just about business — or at least, it has bigger implications. As I wrote in my August cover story on the subject, the main argument in favor of Amazon Mechanical Turk — or rather, the primary piece of evidence suggesting that’s its not quite the human-rights clusterfuck it appears to be from the outside — is that, essentially, we live in a world of immense and increasing economic relativism, and that wages that might seem exploitative in one country are adequate in another. Or as Lilly Irani, a longtime observer of the industry and UC Irvine PhD candidate, told me at the time, “Whenever people talk about Amazon Mechanical Turk, they’ll say that Americans do this for fun and poor people in the Third World do this because it’s a good salary …. And both of these things are meant to stop questions about what the actual working conditions of actual people are.” Now, with the


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