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The notion of users as providing free labor is nothing new to many of us. In particular, we have resigned ourselves to the fact that internet companies track our data, build models of us, and both directly sell the data and use it to target certain demographics when selling ads. We send our bug reports and input our calorie counts without thinking about it.

One particular case that I brought up in lecture was the issue of location services. Apps use location services to provide location-based suggestions and tag data they collect with the user’s location. This seems that it would be a symbiotic deal: companies can presumably make more money by targeting you even better while hopefully making better matches between you and an advertiser relevant to your location. I want to unpack this a bit further, because I think this particular case has some key differences from the general notion of free labor in digital media.

One of the key features of the free labor we tend to provide through digital media is that it is quantifiable. Normally this comes in the form of deliberate actions taken by users: pages opened, miles logged, videos watched, etc. But there is something different when it comes to they type of labor embodied in location services. Namely, it is extremely passive. Once a user accepts the contact to share location data, s/he must do nothing else but use the medium as expected to participate in that form of labor. After a quick acceptance of location tracking (often when the user is excitedly setting up a new phone), the data begin being recorded.

It turns our every movement into a monetizable unit. In contrast to the cognizant labor we typically think of, this passive labor can breach what we generally expect from our services. I’ve shown a number of friends their Google location history ( and they have been shocked at what is collected.

And yet, it is sometimes beneficial. Lose your keys and need to retrace your steps? Trying to remember the places you visited on a previous vacation? That location history can surface itself. Corporations may even find it essential to supersede your permission when applicable. From Apple’s “IOS7: Understanding Location Services”:

For safety purposes, your iPhone’s location information may be used for emergency calls to aid response efforts regardless of whether you enable Location Services.

This opens up a broader question of whether the benefits we receive from the services allow us to call all of the tracked data, moderation of forums, et al. free labor. Without this stipulation, Apple may not be able to help you in a time of need. In some ways we are just entering into a contract (EULA) with a corporation. We let Facebook track our browsing in return for them to profit off of us. Some of the revenue goes to shareholders but some of it goes into adding features, paying customer service staff, etc. It is very easy to cast all of this capture (both cognizant and active) in a negative light; it is certainly the knee-jerk reaction. Security breaches and abuses of privacy abound, but so do the (potential) benefits of such capture.