Much of your recent work is on the subject of Platform Co-operatives, how would you introduce this relatively new economy?
It’s new and it isn’t. For a while now, much of the world has been shifting to an economy organised less through fixed jobs and state benefits than through online platforms that connect us to each other – from Facebook to Uber to okCupid. It’s starting to matter a great deal how these things are owned and governed, because that determines to what ends the economy of the future is being designed. And right now, many big platforms we depend on exist solely – according to their legal DNA, at least – in order to enrich people who happen to own shares in them. This is quite troubling when you consider how much these things have come to serve, essentially, as public utilities.
There is an alternative. The long-standing legacy of co-operative enterprise – businesses owned and governed by the people whose lives they affect most – needs to come online. If we’re going to pour the data of our personal relationships into Facebook, we need a say and a stake in how that data gets used. If low-wage childcare workers are going to rely on an app to find jobs, they should have a say in determining how it works. This is about finally realising the long-promised democratic potential of the internet.
My colleague Trebor Scholz, who teaches at The New School in New York, coined the term “platform co-operativism” in late 2014. We organised a conference together with that name in November 2015. Soon, we’ll be publishing a book featuring dozens of contributors called Ours to Hack and to Own. And the movement is growing. I’m working with a scattered group to document it in a directory at internetofownership.net, but I keep running into new projects we weren’t yet aware of.
Do you think that platform co-operativism is an opportunity for the historical co-operative movement to embrace more open governance models (such as multi-stakeholder), open data and other organisational changes that are more inclusive?
It’s a two-way street. Internet culture needs to learn from co-ops—in particular, the importance of shared ownership over the engines of the economy and their profits. But offline co-ops can learn a lot from the experience of peer-production online. Free-and-open-source software projects have demonstrated that incredibly complex, coordinated activity can happen among teams spread all over the world. Some tech companies have developed interesting governance structures that offer alternatives to both static hierarchies and consensus-based horizontalism. And, certainly, we need to develop co-op models that are as global and as distributed as the internet itself. There is a lot of innovation going on right now as platform co-op developers try to meet that challenge.
We also need to get serious about the ownership of data. Facebook claims we own our personal data, but it also claims an eternal and highly permissive license to use what we post in ways we probably can’t even imagine. This fuzziness needs to stop. Co-operativism enables people to participate in an economy with both eyes open, and we’re seeing some interesting experiments in enabling people to control their data in ways the existing platforms don’t permit. What if Facebook had to ask us every time it monetises our data, and distribute a fair share of the revenue? What if house-cleaners could take their ratings and reviews from one platform to another? Unfortunately, the investor-driven business models of the online economy have resulted in closed systems that should be transparent, and too much self-exposure where much more security is called for.
You recently argued that certain peer production licenses and other digital commons have largely failed to create livelihoods for workers and contributors, and instead have produced low-cost materials for corporations. Do Platform co-ops provide one answer to this problem? And if so, how?
I love the digital commons. I run Linux on my computer and write in Emacs, community-developed text editor that dates to the 1970s. But the benefits of these wonderful, free-and-open creations have not been evenly distributed. Open-source developers are even more white and male than software developers in general. And existing commons licenses don’t stop a company like Google from taking Linux, for instance, and turning it into a highly invasive corporate surveillance system like Android – while scooping up the profits.
Ever since the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, commoners have had to keep the lords’ greedy hands out of the commons. I think the open-source movement and platform co-operativism need to band together. We’re still figuring out how, and there’s a robust debate forming. One strategy is the P2P Foundation’s “peer production license,” which would allow only co-operative enterprises to commercialise a given piece of content. Others argue that this is too restrictive. One way or another, it’s time that we extend the incredible creativity that tech culture has employed in hacking intellectual-property law to hacking corporate ownership as well.
The question of growth for tech co-operatives is an immediate question. At the Platform Co-operativism event in New York City you suggested that rather than recreating organisational monocultures, we should instead look to federations and localised initiatives. Could you explain these tensions within the movement and what this connected growth might look like?
I suppose there is some tension around how much we should be trying to replicate existing platforms, as opposed to doing things in entirely different ways. I suspect the answer is both/and. Like the offline co-operative movement right now, we need startups that pioneer entirely new kinds of businesses, serving people whom the capital markets have left unserved. But we also need conversions of existing businesses that we know and want to trust into more trustworthy ownership models. Both strategies are being explored, and they’re both transformative.
In general, I think it’s clear that platform co-ops are going to develop in some pretty distinct ways. The taxi drivers who pull out of Uber and are creating their own co-operatives have been organising on a local basis, but the local co-ops are often sharing the same software to reach users. Or take Fairmondo, a Germany-based online marketplace – like Amazon, except owned by its vendors and other users; it’s currently in the process of spreading to the UK, but rather than simply expanding the company, the German founders are collaborating with a separate group in the UK to create their own instance, with a common codebase, in parallel. They aspire not to a monopoly but to a federation. When you’re not just trying to maximise returns for investors, some really organic forms of growth are possible.