In late August, British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn—the United Kingdom’s counterpart to Bernie Sanders, except more victorious—announced that he had a plan for the Internet. His “Digital Democracy Manifesto” included planks like an “open knowledge library” and the protection of “digital liberty rights.” One of its more surprising proposals is the call for “platform cooperatives.” As Corbyn’s document explains: “We will foster the cooperative ownership of digital platforms for distributing labour and selling services”—for example, an Uber owned by its drivers, or a Facebook truly accountable to those who entrust it with their data.
Platform cooperatives weren’t something one could even call for until December 2014, when New School professor Trebor Scholz posted an online essay about “platform cooperativism,” putting the term on the map. A year later, he and I organized a packed conference on the subject in New York City. We’re about to publish Ours to Hack and to Own, a collective manifesto with contributions from more than 60 authors that Scholz and I edited. The authors include leading tech critics like Yochai Benkler, Douglas Rushkoff, and Astra Taylor, as well as entrepreneurs, labor organizers, workers, and others. The theory and practice of platform cooperativism are spreading.
It’s been pretty clear for a while now that the corporate Internet behemoths that claim to be involved in “sharing” and “democratizing” are doing little of either—not where it really matters. The venture capital that inflates them, and the IPOs that hand them over to Wall Street, result in an imperative to sell their users’ personal data, labor, and relationships to the highest bidder. It’s a business model based on surveillance and precarity. Many people on the front lines of the digital economy have realized that the ownership designs of the Internet’s dominant companies need to change. A few have started to figure out how.
Platform co-ops began to appear even before we knew what to call them. By her early 20s, for instance, Brianna Wettlaufer was an executive at iStock, a major platform for stock photos and multimedia owned by Getty Images. But at meeting after meeting, Wettlaufer noticed how the company’s business imperatives were in conflict with the interests of the independent artists it claimed to represent. The same restless frustration with bad systems that powered Wettlaufer’s climb up the corporate ladder finally compelled her to leave iStock and, with others, start her own company. Stocksy United went online in 2013 as a cooperative, owned and governed by its employees and hundreds of photographers. Rather than seeking growth at all costs, Stocksy United has concentrated on fair pay for photographers, doubling its revenue last year to $7.9 million. Now, as CEO, Wettlaufer has little difficulty prioritizing artistic quality and fair treatment for photographers at company meetings: The photographers are her bosses.