Is it bad working for Google?

Content Checker for YouTube: Digital Dirty Work

The worst thing for Alexander S. was a video that shows a child about one year old being mistreated and killed. “I can't get the pictures out of my head for my entire life,” he says. The memories could come up at any time, especially if he sees a toddler somewhere.

It is part of his job to watch such videos. S. works in Hamburg for the IT service provider Cognizant as a "content moderator" for Google's video platform YouTube. That means: he and his colleagues see sedition, cruelty to animals and beheadings every day. You block such content so that as few other people as possible see it. They do the dirty work for YouTube.

The job is important for society, says S. That's why he perseveres, that's why he endures the violence and agitation. “It would be madness if such content were to go out unfiltered.” Somebody just has to do this job, that is inevitable.

S. turned to c’t because he wanted to make other problematic aspects of his job public. Things that could be different.

Bad working conditions

"You would have to have a secure workplace in order to be able to process the content at least to some extent," he says. Instead, there are strict performance controls, low salaries, fixed-term contracts, and unclear future prospects. Employees also quit because of the cruel videos. "But I would say the majority left because of the poor working conditions."

S. describes his work in detail, sends us photos from the office and his employment contract. From our point of view, this proves beyond any doubt that he actually works for Cognizant. To check his statements, we contact two other Cognizant employees, Lennard T. and Adrian K .. We also talk to them in detail.

All three also highlight positive aspects of working for Cognizant. There are free fruit, sweets, team events. Above all, the employer does a lot to limit the psychological stress as much as possible. Anyone who is traumatized by a video can sit down in a quiet room or go home at any time. The examiners could also speak to psychologists at a Hamburg institute at short notice. "That works relatively well," says S.

Apart from that, the three of them criticize the working conditions - independently of one another, but in agreement on essential points. In order to protect you from sanctions by Cognizant or Google, we use pseudonyms in this text.

Fixed-term employment contracts

Cognizant is one of the largest IT service providers in the world. The headquarters are in the USA; however, most of the approximately 280,000 employees work in India. The group describes the content check at the Hamburg location in a job advertisement: It is about "social media analysis for the most beloved video platform in the world" and "analyzing sensitive content that can sometimes be very graphic or disturbing". The prospect of an “attractive remuneration model (above minimum wage)” and a “fixed-term employment contract with an option to extend” are promised.

Even before c’t researched, the company announced that it would withdraw from the content review business worldwide in the long term. Upon request, a spokeswoman said that some projects would expire in 2020, others could take longer. Cognizant does not answer our specific questions about the Hamburg location and the working conditions there. Even our question about the number of employees remained unanswered.

According to statements by S., T. and K., around 120 Cognizant employees work for YouTube in Hamburg. Actually, however, there are currently fewer on duty, mainly due to sick leave. Around half of the employees check content in accordance with YouTube's global “community standards”, the other half in accordance with the German Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG).

Complex legal decisions

The NetzDG, which came into force in 2017, obliges large platforms such as YouTube to check videos and comments reported by users for 21 criminal offenses. According to the law, the operators must block “obviously illegal content” within 24 hours.

In practice, it is not as simple as it sounds in the law. The examiners have to make complex legal decisions, weighing between the constitutionally protected freedom of expression and the criminal code. The interpretation of YouTube's “community standards” is anything but trivial.

The examiners do not have much time for this. K. says that everyone makes around 100 to 150 decisions per working day. After certain events, such as the terrorist attack on mosques in Christchurch, it becomes even more stressful. For quality control, managers checked the decisions on a random basis, say the three.

The total number of decisions and the error rate of each auditor would be automatically recorded by software. Superiors also pay attention to the quantity - but more important for a promotion is the error rate. Many employees think the system is unfair, says K. If someone has to check particularly complex or burdensome content by chance and therefore makes mistakes, he hardly has any chance of a salary increase.

The described procedure also seems questionable from a data protection point of view. Software-based performance assessments are not generally prohibited. The measures taken by employers should not lead to “psychological adjustment and performance pressure” on the part of the employees, emphasized a spokeswoman for the Hessian data protection authority on request.

Only 28,000 euros a year

From the point of view of S., T. and K., however, performance control is not the biggest problem. They criticize more sharply the salaries that Cognizant pays for the demanding and psychologically difficult work. The starting salary of the examiners is around 28,000 euros gross annually. For a single that's around 1570 euros net per month - anything but comfortable considering the high rents in Hamburg. According to the information provided by the three, even a “senior reviewer” usually only earns around 31,000 euros.

"The unfair thing is: If we were to work directly at Google, we would all earn twice as much," emphasizes K. The salaries at Google Germany are not known. In the USA, the Google company Alphabet pays its employees an average of around 200,000 US dollars a year, according to a study by the consulting firm Equilar.

»At Google, we'd all make double that

S. also says: "Google should do it itself instead of outsourcing the task to some dumping company". Google wants to avoid that its own employees "go nuts" because of the psychological stress, says T.

A Google spokesman said on request that cooperation with third-party providers was necessary in order to maintain YouTube as a free platform and at the same time to offer users a safe environment. But you also have your own test teams and a machine test. Worldwide they employ 10,000 people in the "Trust & Safety Team". How many of them work internally and how many work externally, Google did not reveal. Further questions from c’t about the work of the auditors also remained unanswered.

According to the three, Google has signed a three-year contract with Cognizant. However, the auditors only received annual contracts from Cognizant. From their point of view, that too is anything but fair. S. speaks of "constant existential fears". T. also says that employees have to tremble over and over again about new contracts and go to the employment office as a precaution. "It's all about resources, not about the human." (Cwo)

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This article comes from c't 25/2019.