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Facebook's contractor mill under the microscope

Content moderators work at a Facebook office in Austin, Texas.
Content moderators work at a Facebook office in Austin, Texas. Photo: Ilana Panich-Linsman for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Reports of poor working conditions at Facebook contract facilities are casting a fresh spotlight on Silicon Valley's longstanding yet risky reliance on a two-tiered workforce.

Driving the news: Contract workers issued a letter on an internal forum Thursday calling for better pay and changes to non-disclosure agreements to ensure they can talk to outside therapists about issues they encounter at work. And those protests have been building for a while.

Details: A Facebook contractor in Austin recently lost his job after protesting working conditions, according to The Washington Post.

  • In a story by Casey Newton in The Verge, former workers at Facebook's Tampa content moderation center, operated by subcontractor Cognizant, described filthy working conditions, long shifts involving exposure to graphic and violent content, indifferent management and other problems.
  • When one worker died from a heart attack at his workstation, managers discouraged coworkers from discussing what happened, according to The Verge.
  • Newton previously documented poor working conditions at a site in Phoenix, and Adrian Chen wrote in Wired about content moderators in the Philippines.

The big picture: It's common for tech companies to rely on a large army of contractors for work that's unglamorous or unrelated to their core focus.

  • But some experts are beginning to suggest that Facebook made a strategic error in thinking of content moderation as a marginal or ancillary task.
  • Given Facebook's core business of connecting people and giving them a communications platform, policing the platform might be one of the most important jobs in the company.

And while every dominant tech company relies on contractors, they've also all run into problems. Microsoft lost a major case brought by contractors in the '90s, and Google has faced challenges more recently over its two-tiered system.

Where it stands: Facebook execs told The Verge that a variety of reforms are underway to improve the environment for its content moderators, who must view a stream of disturbing postings and make tough judgment calls relying on a constantly changing rulebook.

Our thought bubble: CEO Mark Zuckerberg has frequently said Facebook intends to develop artificial-intelligence filters to perform this function at the vast scale Facebook needs.

  • But if AI ever gets good enough to do that well, it will take a long time.
  • Meanwhile, Facebook is putting its users at risk and its contract workers through hell.