We all use Google web apps, part of Google Drive. How can you not? They are easy to use, collaborative, convenient, easy to access, and make file storage easy. Schools in my town can’t get enough of Google web apps for teaching. But here’s the thing: you use the app, but you don’t know where the information is stored and what is done with it. Next, you don’t have control over modifying the platform if you had the technical inclination to do so. And lastly, you don’t own any part of the software or the platform.
I’m looking for an alternative. Specifically for Google Docs and Google Sheets, their word processing and spreadsheet apps. My solution is to put two other existing web apps on a server. They are Etherpad and EtherCalc. Etherpad offers collaborative document editing. EtherCalc is a collaborative spreadsheet app. They are free and open source software (FOSS).
My two-app platform available for the potential hordes of web app users, or just say me for now, will provide the apps, hosting access, and ownership of the platform. Anyone who uses the platform, or develops it, can become a member and owner. This is platform cooperativism where “communal ownership and democratic governance” are the core tenets, as stated by Trebor Schulz in the new book he co-edited called Ours to Hack and to Own: The Rise of Platform Cooperativism, A New Vision for the Future of Work and a Fairer Internet. These two aspects have evolved with co-ops through history. They’re now being advanced by platform cooperativism for the web.
Let’s say the idea grows and audiences come to the platform instead of Google Drive. If some kind of fee-for-service is instituted, patronage payments at the end of the year would get paid out to all members like other co-ops. Do we scale up and run rampant through the American educational system like Apple and Google? Members may also be asked to invest to raise capital. The direction it could take would depend on the owners/members/workers.
Governance of the members is always a challenge, legally and functionally. It’s different from projects that Yochai Benkler in Ours to Hack and Own calls peer production environments such as Wikipedia. Platform co-ops must develop a model that distributes democratic decision-making and ownership for a multi-stakeholder membership/ownership group. Janelle Orsi and David Carroll in Ours to Hack and Own advise careful legal preparation, as “novel legal frameworks” are required for platform co-ops. For group decision-making, a tool I have advocated for previously is Loomio. I also like their membership approach where a new membership can be free, but they encourage donations.
Using the software
My plan is based on software that someone else wrote, and this example shows, in a very basic way, why we must have free and open source software everywhere. Innovation needs collections of software, and the more we have access to, the more we can innovate new platforms for the internet. Software licensing is paramount for computer user freedom, giving access to software source code, and the ability to do with it what you like, advocated by the Free Software Foundation (FSF).
The license for Etherpad is Apache license 2.0. It’s a license the Free Software Foundation deems acceptable in terms of free software standards. “The Apache License 2.0 is the best non-copyleft license that does what a copyright license can to mitigate threats from software patents,” says FSF who holds all software licenses to the standards of the General Public License (GPL), or copyleft.
Ethercalc is also free software, with a license called CPAL. This license is less accommodating according to the FSF. CPAL is not compatible with GPL but still allows for the use of source code.
For now, I’m a one-man revolution with my web-app platform. If it remains that way, I can handle defeat. My previous revolution to make Google a worker-owned co-op has gone unfulfilled.