Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Internet Company BBH Labs Under Fire for Exploiting Homeless as Mobile WiFi Hotspots

Actually, if the company had actually paid the homeless people some good money, I doubt it'd be a big deal. But $20 a day? That's less than minimum wage.

Talk about exploiting the vulnerable. Sheesh.

See New York Times, "Homeless People as Internet Hot Spots Backfires on a Marketer":

AUSTIN, Tex. — Which product at this year’s South by Southwest technology conference received more attention than perhaps any other?

Homeless people as wireless transmitters.

A marketing agency touched off a wave of criticism and debate when it hired members of the local homeless population to walk around carrying mobile Wi-Fi devices, offering conferencegoers Internet access in exchange for donations.

BBH Labs, the innovation unit of the international marketing agency BBH, outfitted 13 volunteers from a homeless shelter with the devices, business cards and T-shirts bearing their names: “I’m Clarence, a 4G Hotspot.” They were told to go to the most densely packed areas of the conference, which has become a magnet for those who want to chase the latest in technology trends.

The smartphone-toting, social-networking crowds often overwhelm cellular networks in the area, creating a market that BBH Labs hoped to serve with the “Homeless Hotspots” project, which it called a “charitable experiment.” It paid each participant $20 a day, and they were also able to keep whatever customers donated in exchange for the wireless service.

But as word of the project spread on the ground and online, it hit a nerve among many who said that turning down-and-out people into wireless towers was exploitative and discomfiting.

Tim Carmody, a blogger at Wired, described the project as “completely problematic” and sounding like “something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia.”

A commenter on the BBH Labs blog offered mock praise for the project, then complained that “my homeless hotspot keeps wandering out of range, and it’s ruining all my day trades!”

On Monday, the project’s scheduled last day, BBH Labs was scrambling to explain itself.
Again, it's the pathetic remuneration that's the real problem. No one forced these people to pose as mobile towers. Indeed, one of the dudes, Clarence Jones, responds, "“Everyone thinks I’m getting the rough end of the stick, but I don’t feel that,” Mr. Jones said. “I love talking to people and it’s a job. An honest day of work and pay”."

Also at Wired, "The Damning Backstory Behind ‘Homeless Hotspots’ at SXSW."

The Los Angeles Times indicates that these folks were also getting commissions off sales, so who knows? See: "Austin SXSW homeless hot spots stir debate."