Ethical and Legal Considerations of reCAPTCHA: Part II (Comparisons to Tom Sawyer)

This is the second post in a series of blog posts of excerpts of my paper Ethical and Legal Considerations of reCAPTCHA to be presented at PST 2012. The paper’s primary purpose is to provoke thought and discussion. I’ve signed a document prohibiting me from publishing the final copy of the paper, but I am allowed to post the paper as originally submitted for consideration, so here it is…

Tom Sawyer

In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the American novelist Mark Twain introduces the fictional mischievous character Tom Sawyer. In one tale, young Tom’s Aunt Polly has assigned him the unenviable chore of whitewashing a fence. Through guile and deception, he convinces other boys that, even though it was at the behest of his aunt, he is in fact savouring the task of painting and that they would be fortunate to have the responsibility of painting. As a result, neighbourhood boys gladly surrender worldly possessions, including apples and a dead frog attached to a string, for a chance to paint the fence.

Foma and fun

While deceptive, Tom’s selfish actions do no harm: Aunt Polly’s fence is well-painted, the neighbourhood boys have had fun, and Tom has not only avoided doing his chores, he has made a tidy profit. A modern crowd- sourcing equivalent would be the Google Image Labeler game – originally the ESP Game ((L. von Ahn, “Games with a purpose,” Computer, vol. 39, no. 6, pp. 92 –94, June 2006.)). Players perform the chore of tagging images for Google in the setting of a game. Because Google awards points for this, some users derive enjoyment through competition for points. In the Tom Sawyer and perhaps Image Labeler cases, painters and labellers may have objected to being psychological manipulation had they been made aware in advance. Here, deception (in this case, by omission), even though it is for personal gain, is being used to create happiness. In the case of Games With a Purpose (GWAP) and Asirra, deception is not necessarily needed to get users to participate ((L. von Ahn, “Games with a purpose,” Computer, vol. 39, no. 6, pp. 92 –94, June 2006
J. Elson, J. R. Doucer, J. Howell, and J. Saul, “Asirra: A captcha that exploits interest-aligned manual image categorization,” in Computer and Communications Security, 2007)).

Karl Marx, in claiming that “religion is the opiate of the masses” through its creation of “illusory happiness” (“illusorischen Glücks”) is attesting to the fact that, even if it is a falsehood, religion has the power to alleviate real pain. Anthropologist Kurt Vonnegut is even more explicit in his novels; two characters have created Bokonism, a religion built upon foma, the Bokonist term for “useful and harmless” lies ((K. Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, 1st ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963)). Vonnegut presents an argument, through a fictional dialogue, that this artificial happiness must be a good thing, even though it is based on lies. reCAPTCHA, on the other hand, makes no attempt at providing intrinsic value to those who solve them (although the lie of omission could still be useful if the end goal is desirable for the solvers).


Tom’s friends and Google’s users were not pressured to contribute to the fence-painting or image tagging and each participant could leave at any time without penalty. There was no element of coercion in either case. Tom was not proposing to end his friendship with anyone that did not paint nor did Google threaten to cut off access to other services it provides for those not wishing to participate. On the other hand, reCAPTCHAs deny access, as they are designed to do, to any agent (human or electronic) unable or unwilling to solve them. This may be ethically defensible if this work is considered payment in advance for a service about to be rendered; that is, instead of paying for access to a web service with money, these individuals are bartering their time as labour, but this line of reasoning has legal implications (see §Tax).

reCAPTCHA differs significantly from television advertisements with respect to freedom. Both may be annoying – indeed, television advertisements may be even more annoying – but television advertisements can be ignored by covering one’s ears and eyes with no negative effects on the viewer. Further, advertising is not yet so effective that the act of viewing the advertisement will make one purchase the advertised product. If reCAPTCHAs were used in place of advertisements, ignoring them would result in a denial of service. This would be as if advertisements came with comprehension questions.


The fence-painters and, to a lesser extent, the image taggers are aware of the task to which they are contributing. Meanwhile, reCAPTCHA is opaque in that it is not apparent from the task or context that reCAPTCHA solvers are performing free, menial labour. The resemblance of reCAPTCHAs to CAPTCHA, by withholding information about the true nature of reCAPTCHA from the average user – if only because they are unlikely to click on a button seeking help because they might find it unnecessary – is deceptive. Akin to Marx’ notion of class consciousness, unless agents realize that they are being exploited, they cannot act rationally in their own best interests. Thus, if people are not informed how their solutions to reCAPTCHAs are being used, they are not in a position to give consent.

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