Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

You've Got Labor Problems, Again! AOL's HuffPo Gripe Seems Very Familiar.

Internet site asks users to help it grow, hits the big time, forgets about the little people.

Huffington Post contributors griping in the wake of the site’s sale to AOL? Sure. But it’s also the same gripe that AOL users made in the dial-up era.

And–pay attention, angry bloggers–some of those AOL users eventually got paid!

The bad news: They had to go to court to get their cash, via a class action suit they filed in 1999. And they didn’t see a check until last year.

As the Columbia Journalism Review reminds us, the old, pre-Time Warner AOL used to rely on an army of volunteers–“community leaders”–to do essential gruntwork like moderating chatrooms. Wired called it a “cyber-sweatshop.

And while it took a decade, the plaintiffs in the AOL case did end up with something for their trouble–a $15 million settlement, handed out last year.

Of course, 30 percent of that–$4.5 million–went to the lawyers, court documents show. But that’s still $10.5 million divvied up among a couple of thousand former chatroom monitors. You can’t retire on that, but you could buy a few MacBook Airs.

So could HuffPo’s angry bloggers get something for their troubles? Seems like a tough case to make: One big difference between AOL’s unpaid workers and HuffPo’s unpaid writers is that AOL really did treat its workers like workers.

It recruited them through want ads, held them to time commitments and compensated them with benefits like free or discounted dial-up access. (Remember that?)

HuffPo’s writers, on the other hand, simply handed the site some copy, which it ran–just like the people who submit op-ed pieces to newspapers. And I never hear about them demanding cash for their work. It seems quite clear that the trade is your words/their distribution.

Still, you never know! And I’m sure there’s at least one attorney, somewhere, who’s ready to try it out. Let’s check back in a decade and see how it panned out.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik