Interview: Yochai Benkler on market solutions through shared resources and co-operation

The challenge for co-operatives, says Yochai Benkler, is to be more self-aware. He believes that co-ops need to be “more self-conscious (in the way that commons-based production online...

The challenge for co-operatives, says Yochai Benkler, is to be more self-aware. He believes that co-ops need to be “more self-conscious (in the way that commons-based production online is) of the broader social, economic role of co-ops as an alternative model well beyond the business sustainability and the success of the individual organisation”.

Prof Benkler has been studying commons and co-operation for over 20 years. He started researching Wikipedia when it was just six months old and has since written about the co-operative dynamics and social and political implications of large-scale online co-operation.

The author and academic is Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School and faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Interest and Society at Harvard University – and he is one of the keynote speakers at the International Co-operative Alliance’s Global Conference this month.

In his presentation he will speak about collaborative production and discuss the role of shared resources and human co-operation in achieving solutions.

As peer-to-peer production is witnessing a tremendous growth in the online sector, new online models where people are collectively producing and owning innovative goods are emerging. “These online models are embodying very strong non-market values alongside the values of making the best product, whether that is an encyclopaedia like Wiki or an operating system like Linux,” he says.

He thinks that over the coming years, three major legal trends will impact co-ops. One of these is intellectual property law, which, he argues, is being expanded to include new areas. He gives the example of agricultural co-ops, which might not be able to use certain products that may employ patented inventions.

Changes in the openness of communication should also be taken into account, he says. If, in the past the openness of communication was crucial to neutrality and wireless and home broadband policy, we are now “seeing a series of changes that are creating new control points that threaten to give a small number of companies an outsized power over network communications”, he argues.

Prof Benkler points out that a small number of companies have huge power over communications
A small number of companies have huge power over communications

“While it’s hard to imagine that this closure would prevent simple communication within a co-op, it does risk co-op workers and consumers having to rely on platforms owned by someone else, such as Facebook or Google.” This means being subject to greater data collection and privacy infringement and higher constraints on applications and platforms that can be used over time, he warns.

“There is a class of laws related to preserving open internet and preserving privacy that are important to members of co-ops to the extent that they rely on online platforms,” he says.

Trade agreements could also surprise co-operatives, says Prof Benkler, with operational constraints in certain areas. He believes that regional agreements tend to be focused less on actual trade and more on intellectual property or finance investment agreements that remove democratic accountability.

There are also a number of opportunities for co-operatives looking to represent alternative points of view through online platforms. One such initiative is the Banyan Project in the USA, which aims to seed community-scale web journalism co-operatives in under-served communities. He believes this is one area that is “severely under-explored”.

Another domain where co-operatives could be more active is open source software. Prof Benkler says the majority of income for software developers does not come from the actual software, but from support services and knowledge based on that software. “If you have hundreds of developers working on a Linux distribution, why don’t they form a co-op that is then able to sell implementation services for a certain company, such as MySQL?” he asks.

The academic also thinks co-operatives could show their co-op difference by making a credible commitment to never collect and use their members’ or customers’ data.

“The leading model of the major internet companies today is to offer services for free in exchange for collecting massive amounts of individual data and deploy that data to get the consumers to buy more than they want to in different ways and respond to various behavioural inputs that would lead them to make more money for advertisers.” It is “critical” for co-ops to resist this trend, he argues.

“It’s not enough to give someone a few dollars at end of year as a return on membership shares.

“It’s much more critical to be able to credibly commit to an ethical alignment between a business and its customers and the extent of data distribution.

“This is particularly powerful because so much of the developing digital model is one in which the consumer sells their autonomy by making themselves more susceptible to manipulation for advertisers […] in exchange for free or lower priced products.”

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