When Covid-19 hit in early 2020 and life was locked down, one company reaped untold benefits. Zoom, the video conferencing app founded in 2011 by Eric Yuan and launched in January 2013, saw its popularity soar as working from home became a new normal for many. In June 2020 Zoom reported making US $328m in revenue during its February-April quarter – nearly triple that of the same quarter in 2019 ($122m).
Despite data, security and censorship issues – not to mention ‘Zoom fatigue’ – its easy interface and business orientation meant that Zoom soon came to dominate the global online market share, well ahead of Microsoft Teams, Skype and Google Meet. It currently ranks No. 1 in 44 countries and has over 300 million daily meeting participants. ‘To Zoom’ is a new verb.
But as the pandemic unfolded, a global coalition of co-operators looked at developing an ethical alternative. The result? The Online Meeting Cooperative.
Meet.coop began as a collaboration between three tech co-ops in May 2020. It is set up using open source software (BigBlueButton) and runs on co-operatively owned hardware powered by renewable energy. It currently has 105 members across Europe, Asia and South America, including brands such as Friends of the Earth International and The Tor Project.
“Meet.coop is a platform co-op, with two distinct classes of members: operational members who contribute hours to run and grow the platform, and user members that subscribe to the services,” says Melissa McNab, one of its operational members. “The operational team is divided into three circles which run using sociocratic principles.”
The software, run through browsers, has the features expected of an online video conference service, including screen sharing, breakout rooms, custom polling and a multi-user whiteboard. Pricing ranges from £9 to £90 per month depending on the type of account, and the organisation has also started offering an online events management service and dedicated custom servers for larger organisations.
Its co-operative difference isn’t just rooted in its ownership structure; Meet.coop wants to pro-actively address concerns users have had around Zoom’s censorship of online seminars, which raised questions about democracy, free speech and academic freedom.
“Meet.coop is a service provider, not a censorship body,” said Wouter Tebbens from The Free Knowledge Institute, another of Meet.coop’s operational members. “Our members’ calls are private and it is not our business to monitor or question who says what to who. The idea that Zoom could close your account for no specified reason clearly sets off alarm bells about privacy and censorship but also about the power of big tech, democracy and freedom.”
The organisation is also dedicated to supporting the transition to a zero-carbon economy. Most of its servers and facilities are currently powered by renewables (including hydro), with those that aren’t, under review.
“We want all our servers to be powered by renewables and are working to transition away from any services which are not,” says a statement on the organisation’s website. “We understand there are many complex issues to take into consideration when assessing environmental impacts, from the greater efficiency and reduced heat loss from newer, more efficient data centres – through to the social impacts of displacement associated with hydropower. Our aim is to operate our services with the minimum environmental impact and we will continue to review our procurement choices accordingly.”
The Online Meeting Cooperative aims to be a “pioneer of the commons economy”, running an open accounting policy, receiving funds and paying suppliers and team members via the Open Collective platform, which makes it possible for any group to run financial transactions without the need to incorporate or set up a bank account, by operating via a fiscal host.
Operational Members are compensated for their work according to peer-reviewed compensation claims, a process which the co-op’s members designed to reward value creation over the typical hours metric.
And in a world-first, Meet.coop has joined the Open Credit Network, offering video conferencing services in exchange for mutual credit. This means that any UK business that signs up to the Open Credit Network can now subscribe to Meet.coop and pay in credits, instead of flat currency. Businesses that subscribe in this way can save cash for essential purchases, and Meet.coop can use the credits they earn to spend on servers and marketing support with other members of the network.
“Meet.coop is working to create a new kind of economy based on the democratic, co-operative ownership of shared resources known as commons,” says Oliver Sylvester-Bradley from the Open Co-op, a Meet.coop operational member.
“By accepting mutual credit we not only hope to make our services more accessible to more people but we are also indicating our direction of travel. We are part of a global movement that recognises that our present economy is no longer fit for purpose and by accepting mutual credit we are tackling one of the root causes of the extractive economy; the way that money is created as interest-bearing debt.”
The Online Meeting Co-operative is a pioneering platform co-operative that is going some way to disrupt a traditionally lucrative sector of the tech economy. Its holistic perspective on global systems change, and the fact it is run as a co-operative to generate profit for people and the planet means that if Meet.coop can attract even 1% of Zoom’s customers, it could become a real force to be reckoned with.