Putting Powerful Platforms under Cooperative Control
On November 13th and 14th in New York City, several hundred people gathered to talk about the problems of an online economy reliant on monopoly, extraction, and surveillance—and discuss how to build a "cooperative Internet, built of platforms owned and governed by the people who rely on them."
My experience at the Platform Cooperativism summit was Wow, everyone here really gets it and so many are doing awesome things; and then Hmm, there are still some really important differences to be worked out; and then We'll have to continue for months to figure out strategy for building fair platforms and we also need to restructure the whole economy.
In the sense technologists use it a platform is, like a physical platform, a technology that holds a lot of people up. It convenes people and gives them a chance to do something they wouldn't otherwise be able to do. Platforms can often be natural monopolies due to capturing the benefits of network effects (one person with a telephone is pointless, having nearly everyone available by telephone is incredibly valuable). Amazon and eBay are both platforms for sellers and buyers, Uber and Lyft for drivers and riders, Mechanical Turk and TaskRabbit for piece-workers and buyers of their work.
A cooperative is a jointly owned and democratically-controlled enterprise formed by people voluntarily uniting to meet their common needs and aspirations. Agaric is a small worker-owned cooperative, Mondragon is a very large group of integrated worker cooperatives, consumer cooperatives are businesses owned by their customers, credit unions are financial institutions owned by their members (with a one person, one vote governance), and producer cooperatives like CROPP Cooperative are formed by member businesses (which are not necessarily cooperatives themselves).
A platform cooperative, then, is a platform owned and controlled by the people directly affected by it. A company must be accountable, and as Omar Freilla put it, accountable means those impacted make the decisions.
The power to do harm
This summit was a follow-up to the Digital Labor summit held one year before which detailed myriad ways centralized online platforms extract value from dispersed workers who have few options or bargaining power. Control of online platforms by the representatives of capital has or will have negative effects on workers, similar to exploitation in global manufacturing (think electronic devices and clothing), and negative effects on customers (think the massive money grab by oligopolies of fossil fuel and telecommunications corporations).
Agaric's Michele Metts told the Digital Labor summit organizers every chance she got that cooperatives and Free Software were the answer to exploited labor in the Internet economy, but something even more powerful than Micky's advocacy must have been at work: nearly every participant at Platform Cooperativism spoke of the need for workers to own the platforms that control their work, and people presenting on technology took for granted that source code and algorithms have to be open for democratic control to be meaningful. As Micky said on her panel, "You cannot build a platform for freedom on someone else's slavery."
The opening presentations made the case that platforms will exploit us unless we take control, and we moved on to discussing strategies for building platform businesses that are cooperatives of the people using the platforms. We also celebrated those already starting, like Loconomics, Fairmondo (in Germany), and Member's Media.
Building for shared power and uplift
The biggest unsolved, but acknowledged, problem is getting the resources to build platforms that can compete with venture capital-funded platforms. Dmytri Kleiner made the claim that profit requires centralization, and, moreover, that centralization requires organizing along the lines of a profit-taking venture. How can people get the resources to build without both having to give up control and having to exploit people using the platform? Robin Chase reminded us that it costs millions of dollars, at least, to build a viable platform. Her solution is to continue to seek venture capital and work for some environmental or community goals while compromising on control.
A more popular possible solution is to replace centralized systems with decentralized ones, even to the point of replacing specific software with protocols, so the cost of building and operating platforms can be more widely shared, along with the benefits. However, as Astra Taylor summed up the widely felt point, decentralization does not always mean distributed power. Therefore control of technology decisions, and so democratic control of platforms, is more important than technology itself.
The potential positive role for government regulation was often mentioned, as Sarah Ann Lewis summarized the sentiment in a tweet: Platforms are not special snowflakes that must be exempt from regulation. If you can only succeed by exploitation you deserve to melt. Indeed, the centralized and surveillance nature of most platforms would make it much easier to ensure non-discrimination and fair wages.
More excitement came from the mention that local government has long played a role and can play a stronger part in democratic ownership of physical spaces. Several speakers urged people to get involved in local government, where harmful policies may be more the result of a lack of knowledge than of embedded corruption. Government can also get involved in mandating an open API for ride hailing services, which would remove the monopoly power from centralizing companies.
On ownership and control
Hundreds of possible solutions faced lively questioning and debate, yet in all of this the titular solution, cooperative ownership, did not get the scrutiny it merits. Jessica Gordon Nembhard's Collective Courage has made me see that the connections and overlaps between worker cooperatives and other types of cooperatives are much more significant than I'd thought, but there are still differences. These differences, and the need to decide who exactly is democratically controlling a platform, were often not made clear by presenters, including some who are building platform cooperatives.
If Stocksy, for example, is owned by its photographers, can the workers who build the platform technology (rather than use it) play a part in democratic control? Co-founder and CEO Brianna Wettlaufer refers to it as a multi-stakeholder cooperative and it has been around since 2012 so they've surely worked it out, but this question is at the heart of how platform cooperatives must operate and it was hardly addressed at all.
The answer can be simple. The Black Star Coop brewery and restaurant in Austin, Texas, is owned by its customer-members while the workers manage it. The workers are internally a democracy, but there's no question they work for a businesses which is managed democratically by the customers. This makes even more sense for a quasi-monopoly platform: It's more important for, say, millions of people relying on a platform for livelihood or transportation or communication to own it than for the relatively small number of people who built it to own it.
This brings up another question that went largely unasked at the conference: does ownership mean anything when it's spread out among thousands or millions of people? Federated structures can mitigate this, but in general whoever controls communication among members effectively controls decisions. It may be possible to have horizontal mass communication by way of democratic moderation. At a small workshop I held at the conference, participants discussed ways collective control can be made real as democratic platforms scale—but that's a topic for another discussion.
The sense that displacing an app or website is easier than reconstructing global supply chains fueled a lot of the excitement at the conference. Notwithstanding, the need to restructure the rest of the economy so that it works to serve the needs of people, rather than sacrificing people's needs to the dictates of the economy, was never far from people's minds. Videos of most sessions are online and will certainly make you think about the opportunities for cooperative ownership of services and structures that define our lives, online and off.