For some time now, I’ve been wondering about the ethical implications of the use of crowdsourcing. Can there be any ethical consequence related to the crowd because using crowdsourcing? And what about the crowdsourcer?
Any technology, as pointed by Nicholas Carr in his book “Shallows: what the Internet is doing to our brains” (2011), implies an ethic because it involves a number of assumptions about how the brain of its users will work and presupposes also a behavior in them. Interestingly, neither the creators nor users of these technologies usually recognize the implicit presence of that ethic, although their effect is reflected both in mind and customs of those users.
In addition to this ethic, we must take into account the teleological nature of any technology. That is, any technology is oriented to an end: it is an instrumental resource for one or another goal (Rescher, 1999).
From my point of view, both the existence of an implicit ethic as its teleological nature are also characteristic of processes or models such as crowdsourcing: it has a clear purpose (its ultimate goal is to manage Collective Intelligence) and its realization presupposes a certain action done by the crowd (which depends on the task and therefore on the type of crowdsourcing initiative). As with technology, a process or model like crowdsourcing is merely a mean to an end.
Technologies are created with a clear and premeditated purpose: Whatsapp was designed to chat, YouTube to watch videos, etc. although its use has evolved. In the case of crowdsourcing, although Howe coined the term in 2006, it was not created or designed by anyone: it is one of the ways that has appeared naturally to manage the Collective Intelligence that has grown exponentially because the Internet. This is therefore, as I have indicated, its purpose, its goal.
As with technology, a curious thing that happens is that often these processes or models are completely ambiguous about that end or goal. A knife is used for cutting. But it can be used by a chef to prepare a tasty meal, or for a murderer to take a life.
With crowdsourcing happens the same. Analyzing images is a task that per se does not imply any problem. When the goal is to find archaeological remains through the GlobalXplorer platform, the end is good. When the goal is to identify immigrants crossing the border from Mexico to U.S.A., albeit illegally, the situation changes.
Divide a large task into smaller ones and offer a reward to the crowd in exchange for its realization has nothing wrong. The problem occurs when the reward offered to that crowd that does not correspond to their effort, thus becoming a form of exploitation.
The same applies to crowd-contest initiatives. There is no kind of ethical problem in resorting to the collective intelligence generated by Internet users looking for innovation or creativity. The problem occurs when this innovation or creativity is not rewarded appropriately, when many of the work generated in the initiative is thrown away and when the real intention is to take advantage (in the bad sense of the word) of those people involved in the initiative .
In short, in the crowdsourcing case the problem appears in for what is going to be used that Collective Intelligence and how the crowd is going to be treated.
Thus it appears, regarding the use of crowdsourcing, a personal decision. The fact that the use of crowdsourcing presents an ethical problem (or not) does not depend on the process itself, but depends on the crowdsourcer: which is the real goal behind the initiative (save costs or seek innovation ?, use Collective Intelligence or take advantage of it improperly?), which reward is going to be offered (is a fair reward?), how the crowdsourcer wants to raise the initiative, etc.
All these factors will be those which make a crowdsourcing initiative ethically acceptable or not.
Carr, N. (2011) The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. W.W. Norton & Company, London.
Rescher, N. (1999). Razón y valores en la era científico-tecnológica, Paidós, Barcelona.