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Can 'crowdsourcing' be slave labor?

By design or by accident, the idea of asking consumers to create ads and design products has already become an accepted practice. The phenomon's immediate adoption is even more remarkable considering that it has taken place in .

Just yesterday, for example, Yahoo launched a campaign urging the public to submit ads featuring its redesigned home page. Other companies have asked customers to design their own products, some of which are even being tracked on blogs dedicated specifically to the trend.

These initiatives typically tout the importance of companies creating new interactive relationships with their consumers in the digital age. But as Paul Boutin wrote in a recent BusinessWeek column, this concept of "crowdsourcing" is not necessarily utopian in all forms. The main reason is compensation--or, more accurately, the lack thereof.

If this trend is carried to its logical extreme, it could conceivably make the always-contentious practice of offshore outsourcing look downright patriotic. Just imagine what the AFL-CIO would say about legions of people devoting hours of their own time doing essentially volunteer work for large commercial enterprises.

Some companies run competitions that offer token prizes for winning submissions, usually of a few thousand dollars. That's obviously chump change compared with the mounds of profits that businesses can reap from even a mediocre idea that results in decent sales.

This is not to say that people should stop inventing things; that is, after all, the American way. We just think they should be compensated where appropriate--and not toil away simply for the honor of having participated in a project that some company trumpets with idealistic Web 2.0 rhetoric.