Thousands of co-operatives around the world have benefited from the sacrifice of one worker co-operative, which “bet the business” on raising the profile of the Movement online.
Ten years ago today, Poptel, a small London-based co-operative, switched on the infrastructure at 5pm (GMT) that launched the .coop domain name across the internet — a unique space was born for co-operatives.
On January 30th, 2002, support came from around the world for the new website address, from media outlets such as Reuters and CNN to organisations such as the European Union and the United Nations. On the launch day Nitin Desai, Under Secretary General in the United Nation's Department of Economic and Social Affairs, said the domain provides “a unique and important opportunity to promote co-operative principles and values”.
And that core selling point is still true today, .coop is the only domain specifically for a business model. The registration of .coop was part of an experiment by internet registry ICANN during the .com boom and frenzy of new registrations to free up space and give more scope for the creation of useful and meaningful names — this saw new domains such as .biz, .info, .aero and .museum. This pilot project has led to the opening of a new registration process this month for another wave of generic domains — that are set to see domains such as .green and .eco.
Carolyn Hoover, Chief Executive of dotCoop, based in Washington DC, says that setting up a new internet domain was a “brave new frontier” for the Movement; and that is has succeeded in its original goals. Though she says there were challenges to set up the first .coop websites and email addresses, due to the fact that the systems had to be developed from the ground up — today though there are many companies that offer these services out-of-the-box.
This network was developed by Poptel, the worker co-operative that provided internet services across the UK, which was one of the founding partners in the global project. It was an ambitious idea from co-founders Shaun Fensom and Malcolm Corbett that eventually led to the demise of their co-op, and it was also an expensive idea with total development costs estimated to be £2.5 million.
On looking back, Shaun Fensom, who was Chair of Poptel, says: “I shall never forget my excitement when the ICANN board made its announcement. For many of us, it seemed to be an enormous opportunity for the Co-operative Movement. Here was a way for co-operatives to mark themselves out from other businesses on the net, to create a badge of trust in contrast with the ‘wildwest’ feel of .com.
“Unfortunately, much of that vision was never to be. The cost of creating the domain — in legal fees, negotiating the contract with ICANN and the technical cost of building the system to run it — was enormous. The price for a .coop domain on launch day was consequently relatively high — and remains so to this day. The number of registrations was much lower than our forecasts, partly because of the price but also because many co-operatives simply weren’t convinced. Most of the million or so co-operatives across the world were much too small and poor to have a website, and those that did have one didn’t necessarily think it was a good idea to change its name.”
At the same time Poptel’s co-founders realised their mission to launch a .coop domain, the American co-operative movement through the National Cooperative Business Association also saw the same opportunity.
Poptel co-founder and its Vice-Chair, Malcolm Corbett, who in 2002 said that they’ve “bet the business” on the success of the .coop domain, reflects: “I called Paul Hazen, President of the NCBA, early in the evening and we immediately agreed it would be a great thing to try and do. At the time the Internet and e-commerce were far more developed in North America and the UK than in many other parts of the world, so what seemed obvious to us, a co-operative identity at the top level of the internet naming system, wasn't as obvious to others.”
NCBA became the sponsoring organisation of the domain application; and formed the current management organisation dotCoop. Support for the domain was also given by the International Co-operative Alliance, which through its global footprint promoted the domain to far-flung places where the internet was still in its early days.
But, due to ICANN rules the sponsoring organisation could not sell the domain names; so the registry business was contracted to Poptel. And it was a tough journey, according to Malcolm: “It was brought home to me just how difficult our job of persuasion was going to be in visits to co-operatives around the world to promote .coop. Some organisations got it immediately and signed up — like the Italian co-op movement, but others were a lot more reticent. However, co-operatives have been around for over 150 years; the internet is a comparative baby.”
On the eventual downfall of Poptel, Malcolm adds: “The effort effectively killed our co-op, Poptel. But like many others I am proud that we have our name and identity branded into the internet infrastructure and I am convinced that in years to come it will symbolise our way of doing business in the online world — a domain that you can trust, the co-operative domain.”
It was a big sacrifice for a high-profile co-operative that had operated in the UK for 20 years and had over 50 employee-members who served co-operatives, trade unions and political parties. Due to a lack of funding within the British Movement, Poptel secured a private-equity deal with Sum International Holdings, which held a 25 per cent stake in the co-op in return for a £1.5m loan.
This helped launch the successful .coop application. But within two years of .coop going live, Sum International increased its investments and gained control of the co-operative, which ceased as a worker-owned business. For a short period the registry of .coop fell into private hands, until it was brought back into the co-op fold by Bob Burlton, Chief Executive of Oxford, Swindon and Gloucester Co-operative.
The society eventually merged with West Midlands Society to become Midcounties Co-operative, which now operates the registry business on behalf of dotCoop. Heading up the operations based in Oxford, is Alan Miller, Vice-Chair of the dotCoop board and Group General Manager of Midcounties Co-operative Domains.
Alan believes now is the time for co-operatives to realise the potential of .coop: “Having been at the vanguard of the domain name movement for ten years and having worked hard to preserve the integrity of the .coop domain name for all that time, the Movement now has a significant opportunity to increasingly embrace .coop. While 7,000 or so names have been purchased to date there remains huge potential for co-operatives to own a domain name that is directly relevant to their marketing or business purpose.”
And after ten years one of the domain’s founders believes .coop is starting to become a much stronger brand. Shaun says: “It is good when you see a .coop name — especially when you're not expecting to — on the side of a lorry, on a bottle of maple syrup.”
As head of the dotCoop management organisation, Carolyn Hoover sees that the take-up of domains is expected to climb even more over the next decade: “Just like the goals associated with the International Year of Co-operatives, we look at the next ten years as a time of potential extraordinary growth of co-operatives. We are working to make sure that these new co-ops are aware of and can easily use a .coop domain to provide a unifying co-operative identity to make the co-operative community even more visible to consumers at all levels.”
The ICA’s current Director-General Chuck Gould echoes this view and praises the role dotCoop has for co-operatives today. He says the Movement’s online presence is “critical to our brand development work” and goes on to say that no global enterprise can have a full impact without a meaningful online strategy: “The ICA actively promotes the dotCoop domain believing that without it a co-operative is missing the opportunity to help build that online community and associate themselves with a model that will have increasing brand awareness and public support in the coming years. We're looking forward to 2012 as the launch of a co-operative decade and very much see the growth of dotCoop domains as a key part of that.”
The growth of co-operatives — or the co-operative way of thinking — is already occuring naturally through the internet with collaboratively-based businesses and action-groups such as Occupy and the Global Poverty Project. Looking toward a flourishing future for the Movement online, Shaun Fensom believes there is a “bigger prize” available to the sector if it recognises the “potential to promote and develop the co-operative business model, using tools like .coop”.
He says: “The net is built on co-operative agreements between networks and mutually owned Internet exchanges. Co-operative forms of organisation flourish across the net. From Wikipedia to ‘crowd sourcing’ the net makes easy the process of building on the small efforts and contributions of many. Many of the best ideas on the net could benefit from the Movement’s experience and wisdom in how best to govern such ventures, ensuring that they stay true to their founding principles. The net helps trading partners find each other and can simplify transactions between them – eBay is an obvious example. The extraordinary success of the alibaba.com trading platform for small businesses gives a glimpse of the potential to accelerate global trade between co-operatives. A true global co-operative to facilitate the sixth principle of ‘cooperation between cooperatives’ and to show the capitalist world that co-ops do it better is within our reach. We should grasp it.”
While dotCoop was a sacrifice for one co-operative; it is an opportunity for thousands and potentially hundreds of thousands of co-operatives to come together and push the co-operative business model online and raise the profile of the Movement by proudly shouting about their .coop.