icm2re logo. icm2:re (I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything) is an 

ongoing web column  by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.

Chronological Index | Subject Index

It’s the business model, stupid!

About the invention of digital slavery

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2019). It’s the business model, stupid! About the invention of digital slavery. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 8.1 (January).

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2019). It’s the business model, stupid! About the invention of digital slavery. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 8.1 (January).

London, 6 January 2019 - As I wrote in icm2re 7.11, voluntarism has a double face. Incorporated into welfare state provisions, as a way to address some of the needs and problems of the poorest, the disadvantaged and the unemployed, it has a long history. It is deeply rooted in a British tradition of charitable activities that actually does not see very favourably the idea of a basic income.

Have public policies and in particular all the welfare state policies slowly created a class of digital slaves, that actually provide unpaid gig work to agencies and charities in exchange for welfare benefits? To answer this question we need, first of all, to assess if it is appropriate or not to use such strong word as slavery, as I think it is, to refer to several forms of digital work.

The new Oxford Companion to Law defines slavery as the ownership of one human being by another. The master has power over the life, labour, and liberty of the slave. People may become slaves in various ways: capture of enemies in war; kidnapping or slave raiding; punishment for criminal acts; payment for debt; or the transfer of ownership from one master to another.

Or, we should add as a modern instance of this definition, people may become slaves just being subject to some sort of compulsory workflow that oblige them to share their personal data online, create and share contents with nothing in return but emotional rewards or debt bondage: for example, in the UK, people receiving Job Seeking Allowance or Universal Credit are generally required to engage with agencies and platforms, respond to surveys, apply for non existent jobs, volunteer for all sorts of organisations - mainly charities - in return for an alleged work experience.

The Oxford Dictionary of Human Resource Management goes beyond the harshness of the strictly legal definition, to state that modern slavery can assume a number of forms including: bonded labour, descent-based slavery , forced labour, trafficking (including trafficking for forced prostitution), forced or underage marriage, child labour, and forms of migrant labour which include compulsion. Estimates of the numbers of those caught up in these various forms of slavery around the world vary from about twenty million to more than forty million. Modern slavery is concentrated in emerging economies, with India identified as the country with the largest number of victims, but coercive labour practices are found throughout the world, including Western developed economies. The UK government estimates that there are about 10,000 victims of slavery in Britain and introduced the Modern Slavery Act 2015 to seek to eliminate the problem and provide support for victims.

The digital economy has given birth to virtual places (commonly known as platforms) where compulsion to do unpaid or underpaid work has become the norm. To a small minority of information specialists, pioneers in the design of such platforms and including myself, this sounds as horrible development. But we have all accepted to some degree that this is the dominant business model so far, the way things work in the digital economy.

A society where slaves constitute at least 20–30 per cent of the total population - the dictionary continues - is generally considered a slave society. We are not there yet, but it won’t be long according to some figures. And it does not seem right at all.

But, here is the good news to start the year with: it looks like the world is becoming aware that, especially through the existence of global, unregulated and uncontrolled new agencies, called digital platforms, the risk of systemic, endemic digital slavery is on the rise.

That is enough to start thinking about a huge social change that could lead to the acceptance of the idea of the basic income in the Western economies on one side and with a total reform of the role of agencies and intermediaries for the labour market on the other, in that reviewing the perverse effects created by massive deregulation in this sector in the 1990s.

Becoming aware

2018 has been a milestone year for those who have been seeking or hoping to have in place more regulations and governance for digital workers since long. In fact, the European Commission, the ILO and several researchers have published reports and studies on the subject that, although still shyly, seems not to be a taboo anymore.

My general opinion remains - as I expressed it through this column few years ago, see icm2re 3.7 - that we should have total equivalence in terms of regulations and governance between the physical and the digital worlds being the confluence between the two spheres of the economy completely obvious. But this confluence should shape and drive all aspects of the internet economy, including of course labour, employment and redistribution of wealth created by the digital media as a gigantic global advertising and retailing space, considering what is the role of agencies and third parties in the market. The “old” copyright principles offer, as the regular reader of my columns surely recalls me saying quite often, fair and simple mechanisms to remunerate authoring and creative work, that is a very consistent part of digital work. But not so straightforward is the treatment of workers that perform other activities through platforms.

Digital work is in itself a very specific notion almost ignored by the public opinion. It calls for reflections and policies of unprecedented complexity and practical internet governance on a global scale - and a fantastic territory for change management cases.

It is true that, in recent years, the issue has been receiving lot of attention - and public funding - under other names and perspectives. For instance a couple of years ago the UK government commissioned to Matthew Taylor (RSA) a thorough investigation on Employment practices in the modern economy. And I will mention other very interesting sources and streams of research in just a minute.

However, it looks like the debates on digital labour are overwhelmingly watered down both in those economies (USA, Singapore) where the accent is predominantly on entrepreneurialism and in those where there is a more developed social welfare culture where it also fuels traditional socio-political biases and ideological narratives (Italy, UK, France).

The result of such variety of intellectual approaches is that in spite of their different starting points, they end more or less with the same collectivist justification in favour of the sharing economy and the inevitability of free labour.

This means that in many respects what prevails in the public discourse so far is the acceptance, when not the trivialisation, in practice, of digital slavery as a sort of inertialess or implicit and unavoidable characteristic of post - capitalism.

How do we stand as software developers, data engineers, ICT technicians, social scientists who have been investigating the relationships between technology, innovations, public policies and the rule of law for few decades?

I asked myself what would be the consequences of a decisive turn in research and policy making, a turn aimed at calling for and embracing the change needed in order to adopt the perspective and raise the interests of digital workers?

Should we drive different routes of developments, informal and formal governance for instance by way of stopping anonymity and all the related faking news and data profiles, paradise not only for innocent freedom of speech but also for nasty and unaccountable advertising, propaganda and tax elusion via social media and e-commerce websites?

Or should we force a top down new regulatory mindset, asking the internet and global tech moguls to decisively review their business models?

Let's have a look at what some research streams show, in the hope of finding an answer.

The social welfare and social policies stream

The European Commission has published a report (2018) showing European workers are currently recruited by digital platforms in not less than 14 EU countries.

The report offers the following definition for platform workers: main platform workers are defined as those who earn 50% or more of their income via platforms and/or work via platforms more than 20 hours a week. They account for about 2% of the adult population on average but with consistent differences: in UK they already represent over 4% of the workforce.

However, it looks like the report marks as unclear the employment status of platforms workers that are underpaid, working while studying or doing other casual work, in overall very precarious conditions and trying to top up their wages with extra hours work from home, after hours, night time, multitasking and so on.

Much more clarity is given to the way in which digital platform are portrayed: some platforms - like Uber - are very popular, especially because involve a certain degree of work in the physical world (logistics, transports, housekeeping). These are called services performed on-location. Others, that provide services performed digitally, like micro-tasks and data operations, are mostly unknown to the public opinion with the exception perhaps of Amazon's Mechanical Turk.

What is common to all digital platforms is their commitment to attract and make available just in time a growing pool of disposable labour. The perspective suits and audience made of predominantly young male professionals, educated at degree level and with high digital skills.

These mostly young professionals accept to perform tasks that actually require, most ot the times, lower skills or imply more manual work (like data entry, transcriptions, posting ads, reviews and recommendations and likes on social media, tagging contents, sharing or picking up photos and so on).

Their employers are often very aggressively willing to exploit the lack of social security for digital work and to pay them very little. There is undoubtedly a good proportion of platforms work that involves professional transactions (software development, copyright, photo editing, translations) but the biggest part of the labour consists of clerical and repetitive work.

The dis-alignment between people skills and type of labour offered through digital platforms is in some respects appalling, and a huge warning sign for the whole of our educational and social security systems: seen from this corner, the mismatch between education, professional development, careers and work opportunities that shows off through digital work platforms looks like an utopian residue of the 20th Century information highways' dream.

For a wider and deeper overview of digital platforms workers and the nature of their performances the reader can turn towards the report published by the International Labour Office in 2018: it contains very relevant information I have not found elsewhere (I did not know, for instance, about the existence of a website like faircrowdwork.org) and more data gathered through surveys of over 3500 individuals from over 70 Countries and five major global digital platforms, plus some hypothesis of more social protection (such as the right of digital workers to have mandatory pension contributions on the ground of experiences piloted, for instance, in Germany).

Although of little use in terms of directions for comprehensive economic measures or strategy and policy ideas, this stream of research is at present the richest in terms of factual data.

The internet economy stream

A second stream of studies tends to be overwhelmingly - when not irritatingly - homogeneous in that: it sits on a conceptualisation of digital work that started almost twenty or more years ago, the idea of the gift economy. It affirms the existence of unpaid labour as a necessity. Then it dives into what seems to me an involution of analytics and intellectual approaches with not very pertinent arguments of dignity, necessity, ethical acceptability or fun and entertainment that mistake the concept of work as an identity and psychological human need with the concept of labour as a way to make ends meet.

My mind goes obviously back to the early developments of the commercial internet as we know it when I was among the consultants who pontificated about the opportunities created by the new economy and the need to give time for such new forms of labour to flourish, leveraging on the flexible and creative reinvention of the idea of work by the new generations. It was a very naive approach.

I wonder what can we do to make academics to stop fuelling such narratives and recognising that we were just wrong as it is wrong to conclude that free creative work online is “normal”: “On corporate social media that use targeted advertising - candidly concluded two social scientists in a 2013 paper on the topic (What is Digital Labour? What is Digital Work? What’s their Difference? And why do these Questions Matter for Understanding Social Media? by Christian Fuchs and Sebastian Sevignani) - creativity is a form of labour that is the source of the value of a data commodity that is sold to advertisers and results in profits”.

The analysis could not be more agreeable: “the wealth of Facebook’s owners and the profits of the company are grounded in the exploitation of users’ labour that is unpaid and part of a collective global ICT worker. Digital labour is alienated from itself, the instruments and objects of labour and the products of labour. It is exploited, although exploitation does not tend to feel like exploitation because digital labour is play labour that hides the reality of exploitation behind the fun of connecting with and meeting other users. That Facebook has gone public poses the question if it will attract large capital investments and if the expectations these investments raise for profit growth can be matched by actual capital accumulation. Its public listing as stock market company has made Facebook definitely more prone to crisis and therefore more inclined to extend and intensify the exploitation of users. The capitalist Internet has faced a financial bubble before. Capitalism exploded into a big crisis after the bursting of the housing bubble in 2008. The social media economy’s financialisation [sic] may result in the next big bubble”.

And then the researchers come to a conclusion that seems just putting the lid on a big pot of uncomfortable and unacceptable ideas or invoking some sort of deus ex machina: “The only alternative to exit the Internet crisis and exploitation economy is to exit from digital labour, to overcome alienation, to substitute the logic of capital by the logic of the commons and to transform digital labour into playful digital work.”

Unfortunately, the evidence gathered from the first three decades of the digital economy has demonstrated that once we have transformed our lives in data commodities there is little chance Facebook or Instagram can pay our electricity bills, the dentist or a nice holiday and so there is not such a category of unpaid “playful digital work” in reality. Even when it does make sense and it pays the bills, any internet business is in its essence very volatile and very rarely sustainable for long. There will always be somebody joining a TV show from a remote island saying how revolutionary is to be able to connect with the rest of the world online and sell... shells?, just found for free on a beach. But no such relevance has for the dentist’s bill the fact you are a web influencer, or that you have millions of followers on Twitter and an enviable collection of pictures on Instagram.

More recently - between 2017 and 2018 - researchers based at the Oxford Internet Institute have explored issues arising from new form of digital labour from various perspectives - regulators, workers, employers, unions - and offered more complex and tiered analysis, plus a growing, massive amount of data about the phenomenon. Partially supported by the International Development Research Centre and the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development, the OII researchers have identified a number of problematic implications on a global scale, also for international economic development - for instance the uneven geography of power and contractual relations.

However, they do not seem to consider that the space offered to workers and employers, to customers and suppliers through digital platforms’ workflows has been socially engineered, transforming all the actors of the digital labour market in audiences, passive or interactive recipients of commercial or political messages managed by third parties. There is still the shadow of an utopian and over-optimistic reading of what is going on through the online market space, or the assumption of ethical values and invisible hands, as if the conversations and the storytelling dominating the online small worlds should promote by virtue of its own connective nature a tendency to satisfy the demand for good, collaborative work relationships and positive interactions.

Nothing could be actually furthest from the reality of the digital interactions: the hard evidence of the same data the researchers have gathered shows a dysfunctional oversupply of skilled labour, the systematic exploitation of unpaid work and an incredibly poor idea of human relationships.

But experts still tend to conclude in 2018 - as I was used to do twenty and more years ago with other researchers and consultants of my generation - that all the issues arise from just a fundamental immaturity of the market: “Workers, unions, and regulators are all using outdated concepts to try and make sense of a contemporary world of work. If we are to build a fairer world of work, we are going to need new language and new concepts for networks, processes and organisations of digital labor, for strikes, for picket lines, and for coalitions of, and collaborations between, workers. These concepts will shape how we understand digital labor and how we envision ‘paths to the possible.’”.

The phenomenological point of view adopted by the Oxford Internet Institute is undoubtedly useful to gather data, engage institutional, academic and NGO audiences, highlight problems and construct arguments towards new policies that could or should inevitably look at the whole of the labour market and its long term trends. And yet, it ends fuelling narratives that confirm the status quo and misrepresent the living conditions of millions of people. This is pretty much what a number of other relevant observatories have also been doing for a while in respect of the digital economy and its disruptive effects on the labour market, even since before the appearance of digital platforms: suggesting systemic solutions, like more radical lifelong learning interventions, the reshape of mid-life careers options and so on and so forth has been, for instance, the type of advice offered by the McKinsey Global Institute 2017 report Jobs lost, jobs gained (the title of which continues the tradition of the overoptimistically biased vision of transformative socio-economic change that is, in itself, unsustainable).

In sum, none of the interesting datasets and policy ideas coming from economists and specialists on digital labour can actually give digital workers of all age groups, hic and nunc, the chance and realistic hope to make ends meet.

The media and cultural studies stream

This third stream I have eagerly investigated, trying to map and keep up with all the relevant propositions, is quantitatively the more significative and heterogenous, offering a considerable amount of books, articles in academic journals, blogs, conferences speeches. I was hoping to find some ideas on which I would myself build up new value propositions as a consultant who still has ambitions of offering change management strategies for automation and digitisation without loss of jobs.

It is also the sector in which the specific subject of digital labour has recently melted down - or it has been vaporised? - into what Soshana Zuboff has recently defined surveillance capitalism.

Others, like Nick Couldry, have pointed the finger towards the end of individual autonomy and the consequent risks for democratic societies.

In sum, this third one is a broad and productive area of reflections that for the last ten or so years has progressively entered and pervaded the space of the public domain in which we would expect to see debated the issue of how we remunerate and regulate digital work for the many, not the few or the academics.

In some respects, it looks like there is a lot of historical dust under the carpet of cultural and media studies: the specialists are well aware of it, but they are holding their breath in the hope and wait that an old or new media conglomerate decides to put the theme on the public agenda first. They could then follow without risk of losing their own jobs.

The dust I am referring to is generated by definitions inherited from philosophical, historical and political theories that create self referential cycles of debates around the new media, ICT and all things digital.

The research I have found generally uses such dusted battery of arguments and pretends a variety of tones, from indignation to senile stupor, to express various degrees of sympathy, tolerance and justifications for business models that, in practice, simply accept and intellectually justify the need for free labor and even beyond - institutionalising various forms of digital slavery.

In some cases, there is not even need to mention it: it is an assumption that business models today have to be grounded on free online labour, entrapped into some emotionally driven contract, or engaged volunteers that share the same passion for common causes: only the villain of the piece, or a desperate holy fool, would ask why all those people are not paid and have to rely on social welfare for basic needs instead of receiving a normal salary?

Tiziana Terranova in a study supported by the UK ESRC found and wrote about the risks of glamourization of digital labor and degradation of knowledge work available for free over the internet back in 2003. At the time there were few practical examples of specific businesses conceived and developed using labour freely available online, and intensively doing so. However, she mapped the phenomenon of affective work - what we had called years earlier the gift based economy - and the various categories of theoretical or ideological justifications given to it, including the very Italian "social factory" school, the french argument of collective intelligence, the global open source movement - all trends sharing various degrees of a "common rhetoric of competition and flexibility". As the author concluded, this way of looking at and trying to make sense of free labour is an "immanent, flat, and yet power - sensitive model of the relationship between labor, politics, and culture".

Over fifteen years later, a global niche of researchers from the social sciences and the media and cultural studies fields has enriched the pathway Terranova pictured in 2003, with Zuboff offering an impressive record of research and reflections spanning four decades. For instance Trebor Scholz - who has made a map of the digital labor landscape with a significative categorisation of waged and unwaged types of gig jobs at http://www.mindmeister.com/69346890 - has written about platform cooperativism.

And so on and so forth. As an independent and marginal scholar, I do not belong to the organised (mainly academic and corporate) knowledge worlds that has been fuelled this stream of research. So, to cut it shortly, it is very difficult for me not to see the vested interests that make it engaging as well as pointless.


I did not find satisfying answers to my questions on how to stop the exploitation of digital labour and prevent all the various new subtle forms of digital slavery. I have instead found more and more intertwined arguments that, in spite of being not only legitimate, but also economically relevant and intellectually fascinating, nonetheless obfuscate the core question of digital labour. I will return on these aspects, and the way in which they shape perceptions of the digital economy, in another forthcoming article about surveillance capitalism and the right to personality.

Crowd-work or micro-tasks executed on digital platforms are underpaid and totally unprotected forms of labour, hugely exposed to risks of frauds and systematic exploitation. And yet these workers are still invisible and appallingly ignored by the media, the regulators, the corporate world, the academic world, and even the unions - with few exceptions that overwhelmingly tend to intellectualise and abstract the issues, as there was an invincible social pressure to accept and practice free labour as normal sign of modernity.

In this respect the endeavour of the Oxford Internet Institute aimed at building indicators that document and make measurable the reality of digital labour is certainly helpful, as long as it is recognised that there should be a flag of dual use research of concern on the whole of the data collection.

In fact, the callous information avoidance that characterises the subject of digital labour is quite dramatic, as the same history of the regulation and deregulation of labour exchanges for the whole of the 20th Century proves. It extends even to cases when gig work is actually at the centre of cyber frauds or other deeply unethical and illegal employers' behaviours (like retaining the work done and not paying the worker) or it is at the foundation of arguable social media policies, like the alteration of click-throughs for keywords advertising campaigns, or the fabrication of trolls and "likes" and other reputation and marketing mechanisms - and all these are “misbehaviours” under the sunlight or the dust under the carpet of the internet economy nobody really wants to get rid of.

My very humbles ideas for internet governance and more equality and fairness in the workplace, calling for full equivalence between traditional and digital labour, stand, as well as my radical views in defence of the right to copyright, identity, privacy and civil liberties and the rejection of anonymity as the main source of the many dysfunctional behaviours we witness online.

Such views may not be yet very popular among intellectuals, academics and digital activists, but they are the underlying foundation of good digital labour in the opinion of common ordinary intelligent and practical people. They are very, very slowly finding their way through several stakeholders communities and narratives, starting with the recognition of special copyright provisions for digital authors and artists (I have been campaigning since long, see - for instance - my icm2re 4.9).

In sum, it looks like for a change of attitude towards digital labour at policy level we may need less theoretical and cultural views and more pragmatical and fair management of people, processes, products.

We should all aim at engineering a better world, a world without slavery in any form.