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A lot of people have responded to my Duolingo post with things like "Never work for free," and "I would never donate my time to a corporation.” Which I completely agree with.

But here's the thing about Duolingo and all of the other companies like it. You already work for them. You just don’t know it.

On Duo, I thought I was learning a language. Participating in the community by helping other learners and building resources seemed like part of the process.

Luis Von Ahn, the CEO of Duolingo, was one of the creators of CAPTCHA, which was originally supposed to stop bot spam by getting a human to do a task a machine couldn’t do. In 2009 Google bought CAPTCHA and used it to get humans to proofread the books they were digitising (without permission from the authors of those books btw). So in order to access much of the web, people had to work for Google. Most of them didn’t know they were working for Google - they thought they were visiting websites.

This is how they get you. They make it seem like they’re giving you something valuable (access to a website, tools to learn a language), while they’re actually taking something from you (your skills, your time, your knowledge, your labour). They make you think they’re helping you, but really you're helping them (and they’re serving you ads while you do it).

Maybe if people had known what CAPTCHA was really for they would’ve done it anyway. Maybe I still would’ve done all that work for Duo if I’d known it would one day disappear from the web and become training data for an LLM ...

... Or maybe I would’ve proofread books for Project Gutenberg, or donated my time to citizen science projects, or worked on an accessibility app, or a million other things which genuinely improve people’s lives and the quality of the web. I didn’t get an informed choice. I got lured into helping a tech company become profitable, while they made the internet a shittier place to be.

How many things are you doing on the web every day which are actually hidden work for tech companies? Probably dozens, or hundreds. We all are. That’s why this is so insidious. It’s everywhere. The tech industry is built on free labour. (And not just free – we often end up paying for the end results of our own work, delivered back to us in garbled, enshittified form).

And it’s a problem that’s only getting worse with AI. Is that thoughtful answer you gave someone on reddit or Mastodon something that will stay on the web for years, helping people in future with the same problem? Or is it just grist for the LLMs?

Do you really get a choice about it?

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