Platform Cooperativism: Taking back the internet

Platform Cooperativism is a rising and ambitious movement, but based on a simple co-operative principle: to put power back in the hands of the people. ‘Ownership of the...

Platform Cooperativism is a rising and ambitious movement, but based on a simple co-operative principle: to put power back in the hands of the people.

‘Ownership of the internet’ may sound like a lofty aim, but taking control of the online tools we use is really just a 21st century equivalent of owning the shop we run, or the pub we go to. Can the internet be owned and governed differently? And if so, how?

In November, over a thousand people convened for an event at the New School in New York to discuss how this could be achieved. Billed as a ‘coming-out party for the co-operative internet’, it attracted academics, co-operators, business leaders and those just curious about what was happening.

Nathan Schneider, the event co-organiser. (Photo: Elizabeth Leitzell)
Nathan Schneider, the event co-organiser. (Photo: Elizabeth Leitzell)

Writer and reporter Nathan Schneider co-organised the conference, and is at the heart of the movement. “[The phrase] ‘Platform Cooperativism’ is a call-to-action coined by my colleague Trebor Scholz,” he said, “just long and mysterious enough, I think, to arouse curiosity and to give a name to what, actually, a lot of people have been longing for and even working on.”

Read any blogs, or watch any of the talks from the conference, and two names keep coming up as examples of why platform cooperativism is needed: Uber and Airbnb.

“Uber and Airbnb have brought our challenge into stark relief,” says Mr Scheider. “On the one hand, they’re incredibly convenient and appealing tools that are in some ways tremendous advances on how things were before. However, they have made quite clear that they are not willing to be accountable to the communities in which they operate – to city governments, for one, and to the labour protections that workers have fought for for centuries.”

Advertisement

That’s where platform cooperatives come in. They aim to provide the same convenience and innovation of services, but with responsibility and accountability ‘baked into their DNA’.

Mr Schneider expands further: “It’s about democracy. What if Facebook users could set their own terms of service? What if Uber drivers owned their platform? We believe that in a truly democratic society, these would be a matter of course. Platform Cooperativism is about creating the tools and strategies to shift power on the internet from extractive monopolies to generative democracy.”

(l-r) Janelle Orsi and Trebor Scholz at the recent Platform Co-operativism event in New York.

 

These platforms are already all around us, they are just less visible than the main players. Stocksy is an online stock photo co-operative that pays at least 50% of every photo licensed to the photographer. And, as a co-operative, every contributor receives a share of the company. Resonate is a music streaming service owned by the artists, while Fairmondo is a co-operative online marketplace.

As more people become involved with the possibilities of platform cooperativism, Nathan and Trebor are continuing to look for room to grow. “Trebor and I are beginning to assemble a book based on the event in November, so as to make more accessible as many of the brilliant contributions as we can. There is talk about building a foundation, or a federation, to support and connect these initiatives.

“Most of all though, what impressed me at the event was that I as an organiser could pretty much just sit back and watch it happen. The desire and creativity in those rooms propelled themselves forward without much nudging.”

Over 1000 people descended on the New School in New York
Over 1000 people descended on the New School in New York

 

Eight things we learned from the Platform Cooperativism conference:

  1. Platform cooperativism embraces the technology of shared economies but adds co-operative values. For example, producer-owned platform co-operatives (PCs) allow artists to own the platforms where their work is displayed and sold, for example Resonate or Stocksy. Similarly, the consumer-owned site Fairmondo is billed as the ‘co-op eBay’. As the low-wage sector balloons and workers’ rights crumble, PCs aim to provide an alternative.
  1. Shared economies are really just on-demand economies. They let you put Spotify in your Uber car, or rent a flat wherever you want at the click of a button. So, Uber and Airbnb are essentially logistics companies where everyone is paying the middle man. There may be a short-term gain for the consumer, but there is a long-term loss as an on-demand economy is a shift away from employment. Not technically in the bracket as ‘employer’, the companies can flout employment rules and rights for workers. PCs can put the dignity back into work and support the rights of workers.
  1. Lines are being blurred. The boundaries between work and hobby; personal and professional. Previously personal things like lending your flat to other people, giving someone a lift, or sharing food are now being professionalised. Society is struggling to categorise what these activities are, and as such is also struggling to regulate them.
  1. Shared economies rely on speculation. Uber may be worth $70bn, but that’s based largely on projection and the expectation that Uber will assume complete control over the ridesharing market. As it is, it is in fact losing tens of millions of dollars fast. Combine this with breaking up unions, the lack of regulation, and making flexible or erratic work schedules normal, it’s clear why conference co-organiser Trebor Scholz was moved to refer to the shared economy as ‘Reaganism by any other means’.
  1. Ride sharing is actually the perfect co-op model, but not the way Uber does it. Giving people a lift from one place to another relies on a local market. Unlike Airbnb, which stretches from city to city; country to country, Uber (or Lyft, or Halo) is used and run on a local level. As such, it is much easier to compete against. If a new model could be established which looks after the worker it would solve a lot of the objections people have to ridesharing services – employment rights, payment of tax, discrimination. Structural change is required but the gap in the market is there. As author and professor Frank Pasquale pointed out, technology is distinct from the firm. Neither are set in stone: Uber does not own the rideshare concept.
Ideas were discussed for a co-operative equivalent to platforms like Uber and Airbnb
Ideas were discussed for a co-operative equivalent to platforms like Uber and Airbnb
  1. Without careful monitoring, the sharing economy can prolong inequality, a class system and racism. The academic Juliet Schor’s speech concluded that there was a strong element of ‘ingroups’ within shared economy enterprises. The demographic is predominantly well-educated and white, not the all-inclusive model they are intended to be. The sharing economy is destigmatising traditionally working class jobs, and so taking them away from those who normally perform those tasks. Sharing platforms are meant to empower poor people, but there is  danger of the opposite happening.
  1. Capitalism is inefficient. Professor Yochai Benkler’s speech argued that the move towards co-operativism comes after 40 years of wage stagnation and then a dramatic financial crash. He suggested that co-ops could develop by following the free software movement: building their own things and shifting power through changed ownership structures.
  1. The possibilities are (almost) endless. Trebor Scholz laid out some of those possibilities. Like city-owned platforms to compete with Airbnb where cities pool resources, build the platform, and allow short-term rents. Profits are put back into the city and residents paid a dividend from the rents. This would be easier to regulate than Airbnb and would operate much like Seoul’s version of Uber (KakaoTaxi – which hires only licensed taxi operators and has a deal with the government to let commuters pay with subway passes). Or what about a peer-to-peer lift service, where people are paid in Bitcoins? The overwhelmingly positive feeling from the event was that if you can imagine it, it can happen.
  • You can find more information about the movement – and watch video streams from the event – here.

In this article

Join the Conversation