The launch of the .coop top level Internet domain ten years ago created an opportunity for the worldwide co-operative movement to step straight into the 21st century.
A chance to show that it was better adapted than capitalism to deal with the disruptive power of the Internet and digital technology. Sadly the movement was slow to respond and much of the original vision for .coop was written off as utopian — or has simply been forgotten. The opportunity is still there however to build on this asset.
During the DotCom boom in the early part of this century there was a frenzy of new names being created, particularly with the .com ending. ICANN decided it wanted to experiment by adding new top-level domains to free up space and give more scope for the creation of useful and meaningful names. So it invited proposals.
Malcolm Corbett who was working with me at Poptel proposed that we apply for two: .union and .coop. Poptel was itself a co-operative and provided Internet services to a number of British and international labour organisations. For the .union proposal, Poptel teamed up with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and for .coop it joined with the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA) of the USA, which had the same idea. The International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) agreed to support the proposal.
But, it wasn’t cheap; ICANN demanded a non-refundable application fee of $50,000 per name. That didn’t prevent over 40 applications for over 100 names from all over the world, including some from corporate giants like Nokia.
As it happened, the ICANN board approved just seven, including .coop. Of the others, really only two have had any success – .biz and .info. Some, like .aero (reserved for the aeronautical industry) have very little visibility outside their niche. ICANN rejected .union, and also our parallel request to allow ‘.co-op’ as an ‘alias’ name so that uk.coop and uk.co-op would take you to the same place.
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 cooperative 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 wild-west feel of .com.
Co-operatives would have privileged access to the names they wanted, reserved for their use. We would build sophisticated directories so that customers and other co-operatives could find a co-operative supplier of a product or service, confident that they are dealing with a bona-fide member-owned organisation.
I proposed that we should prove the point dramatically by creating a worldwide Internet services co-operative to run .coop and provide on-line services that would help co-ops work together and trade. A co-operative owned and financed by its co-operative users all over the world.
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, 30 January 2002, was consequently relatively high – and remains so to this day.
The number of .coop 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 or poor to have a website, and those that did have one didn’t necessarily think it was a good idea to change its name. It is only in recent years that our own retail consumer movement has made co-operative identity the central plank of its brand, with the Co-operative Group in the UK adopting www.co-operative.coop as its preferred name for the main website.
There was no appetite among the partners in 2002 for launching a new global co-operative to take ownership of the domain operations and raise further investment. The ambitions for .coop to become the well-ordered and regulated ‘namespace’ in contrast to the chaos of .com were forgotten as the NCBA and Poptel struggled to make .coop cover its running costs.
Poptel — which had bet the farm on .coop — never recovered and ultimately was taken over by one of the investors who had stumped up the development costs. Many of us left as a result. Later Bob Burlton of Oxford Swindon and Gloucester cooperative (now Midcounties Co-operative) negotiated a deal with the new private owner of Poptel and brought the technical operations of .coop safely back into cooperative ownership.
Now, ten years later, it’s worth asking where we are and what has been achieved. The name and the registry operation are stable and in safe hands. It’s been recognised and adopted by some of the biggest names in the movement worldwide.
Thousands of smaller coops have enthusiastically embraced the name and wear it with pride. Forward thinking coops like Co-operative Press, operator of this website, has fulfilled some of the original vision with innovations like s.coop and thenews.coop – using names that would be impossible to obtain with almost any other ending.
There are around 7,000 names registered in all (compared with tens of thousands of new .com names registered every day) but .coop is one of the most successful of the new top level domains approved since 2000, and easily the most successful of the specialist restricted names. Not many readers will ever have seen a museum website ending with .museum or a travel website ending with .travel but many readers will know of several .coop websites.
The recent decision by ICANN to open the process so that anyone can apply for a top level domain (for a substantial fee) has led to speculation that we will see the arrival of .tesco and similar corporate names. This means that .coop will lose some of its privileged status but may ironically lead to a much wider acceptance that domains don’t have to end .com or .co.uk.
There is in any case a much bigger prize still available to the movement if it recognises the potential of the net to promote and develop the cooperative business model, using tools like .coop. 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 ‘co-operation between co-operatives’ and to show the capitalist world that coops do it better is within our reach. We should grasp it.