Co-op Development

Building Website Simplicity and a Democratic Solution

You’re a small organization, and you need to set up a reliable website. If you want a robust site, Drupal can provide endless solutions. Drupal is free, and can be a very powerful content management system (CMS) for your site. But the tech side can stop you from getting it started, and from maintaining the software. A platform co-op called Drutopia, mentioned in a previous post, wants to simplify the tech side of Drupal for your website.

You’ve probably used a content management system (CMS) for the web before — WordPress and Drupal are the most well-known. These CMSs provide people with little technical savvy the ability to create and manage content. But CMSs need a software ‘stack’ to be setup and run, including a web server, PHP, and a database. Drupal also needs to be updated; a lot. Add to this the ins and outs of Drupal 8 and tech aspects start to pile up.

If you want to see who uses Drupal, check out Drupal.com. But you’ll see on this site that Drupal 8 is (currently) promoted as an enterprise platform, ie, for big organizations. Drutopia wants to bring Drupal back to small organizations.

WordPress has WordPress.com to help you run your WordPress site. Similarly, Drutopia can help you run your Drupal site. It’s based on software as a service (SasS). Pooled solutions include a Drupal 8 configuration with elements that can be used by a wide range of users. Low or no-cost installs will also help small organizations that need to get up and running.

However, it’s the ownership structure that will make you a member and owner of Drutopia. A service fee and collaborative model will support all stakeholders: users, designers, site builders, and developers. This can build a vibrant support structure so your small organization can focus on what it needs to focus on.

Sign up for Drutopia at Drutopia.org to stay involved with its development.

 

 

 

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Withholding Shareholders and Retaining Wealth for Members

Graphic from SBLI.com

I just received a ballot in the mail from my life insurance company, SBLI. They are actually letting me vote for increased membership rights. SBLI is a national insurance company based in Massachusetts with customers in all 50 states except New York. The Board of Trustees has unanimously decided to vote on becoming a mutual insurance company, or known in the industry simply as a mutual. I applaud the move. The more mutuals in the US, the better.

A letter included with the ballot explains that policyholders like me can have a more controlling interest in the business. I would gain membership rights including voting rights:

‘Policyholders and holders of annuity contracts will have membership rights, including the right to annually elect directors and to consider such other matters as are considered at annual and special meetings, in the mutual company.’

Taking care of policyholders may seem like a no-brainer. But central to the conversion to a mutual is what’s being cut out of the new structure:

‘With the elimination of shareholders, the Board of Directors of SBLI can focus exclusively on operating the Company in the interests of policyholders and holders of annuity contracts.’

Finally, the reality of external shareholders is described, and what SBLI wants to do away with:

‘As a result of changes in capital requirements applicable to the Company’s shareholders, all of which are banks, it is expected that dividend payments to shareholders would increase over time. If shareholder dividends were to increase, SBLI’s capital would be reduced, potentially negatively affecting the Company’s financial strength. This could reduce amounts available to pay policyholder dividends. Elimination of the shareholder ownership structure is expected to protect policy dividends from potential competing claims from shareholders.’

A true cooperative structure comes from democratic governance, and the degree to which SBLI becomes democratic remains to be seen. But SBLI’s move away from outside investors removes an extractive element of the business. This move to a mutually owned structure will cut down costs for all members (ideally), create independency, and improve sustainability.

The Twitter Vote May 22, and the Radical Co-op Challenge

Home page of buytwitter.org

The movement is underway. #buytwitter, #buythisplatform, and buytwitter.org are among the efforts pushing to rethink Twitter ownership. Twitter votes May 22 on a petition to explore a co-op option for Twitter. And a recent discussion co-hosted by Shareable, has some insightful thought on the topic: #PlatformCoop Round Table: Scaling Community Control & User Democracy. The round table discussion was streamed live on Apr 13, 2017 and moderated by Shareable’s Maira Sutton. Confronting an established, $10B company about ownership is new territory, but discussing it can lead to innovation.

Business Insider reported on the pending vote and says “unanimous opposition from the board means the vote is unlikely to pass.” It would be a big change, termed radical, in the article. I suppose asking a board to reconsider its own power might not elicit a sharing response. But if discussing it causes new ownership and governance to be considered more broadly, then it’s a good exercise. And Maira Sutton points out that major outlets have written about the premise of buying twitter. The conversation is started, and that’s already a success.

Featured in the platformcoop discussion were Michel Bauwens, P2P Foundation; Terry Bouricius, political scientist and sortition advocate; and Susan Basterfield, of Enspiral and Catalyst. This was part two of a previous panel moderated by Douglas Rushkoff.

Maira stated in her introduction that the term platform cooperativism has evolved into platformcoop. Then she asks the question: how are platformcoops viable on a large scale, such as one with Twitter’s 300+ million users?

Brought to light concerning size was a reality about participation. Michel Bauwins pointed out that there are segmented streams of activity. Not everybody needs to be involved in running the platform. Don’t panic about 300M people on the platform he says, there are modules of governance that will break down the larger group. Ultimately about 15% may have the willingness and energy to fully participate. Susan Basterfield added that participation at Enspiral happens in pockets, or pods based on interest and energy. These groups effectively divide governance.

Another concept to consider for such a large co-op is the jury model or sortition. Maira also mentions this theme in her article about the round table discussion: “6 Ideas on How Millions of Users Can Own and Govern Twitter.” Terry Bourcious presents this as an approach to picking temporary and random cross sections of the organization to make decisions. This can be effective because these people are a true representation of the organization. Conversely, leaders that come forward themselves can often have the wrong motive such as ego or self-aggrandizement. A randomly selected temporary jury can pick a board of directors among other tasks.

The discussion also brought to light a platformcoop tool: Loomio. It’s used as a tool in two of the participants’ organizations. This is a voting platform tool, and co-op, I’ve used and have praised in this blog. Susan describes how Loomio changes how work is done at Enspiral. It’s not just a platform for participation, but also encourages deliberation. Michel also uses Loomio and agrees it provides time for deliberation, but also gives direction to decision making. Such a tool could likely serve Twitter well.

You can show your support for Twitter as a platformcoop. Buytwitter.org has a form where users and shareholders can sign a petition. The co-op idea is a long shot, and other business thinkers are seeking influence. Bruce Judson in a Tech Crunch article makes a direct appeal to CEO Jack Dorsey suggesting a new fee structure (only).

This movement isn’t just about Twitter, but is the leading edge challenging the online extractive economy.

My Web-App Revolution: A Platform Co-op

web-appsWe 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.

 

Software and Co-ops

Micky Metts presents on Platform Cooperativism

Micky Metts presents on Platform Cooperativism

In early August members of the web development cooperative, Agaric, presented to two Boston area audiences on platform cooperativism. Platform cooperativism brings cooperation and collective control to platforms built for connecting people, services, and products. Ben Melançon from Agaric presented to the first audience, a group of web developers in Boston that meets regularly to discuss the content management system (CMS) Drupal. Drupal is widely used because it is powerful software, but it’s also free – free software is also known as open source software. The worker-owners at Agaric, particularly Micky Metts, have been working hard to bring together the movements of cooperatives and free software.

Ben’s presentation introduced platform cooperativism which offers something related to both cooperatives and free software: ownership. Distributed ownership of online platforms can benefit both developers and users in a cooperative structure that platform cooperativism champions.

Ben presented the possibility of funding a given web project by users. What if musicians, for example, invested in a music sharing platform that serves them? This would give the developers and the users of the platform a source of capital. Developers and users would also be owners forming a hybrid of stakeholders, creating a cooperative platform. Turning users into investors can be a powerful impetus for web development.

At a second event this month promoting free software called Libre Boston, the task of explaining platform cooperativism fell on the shoulders of Micky Metts and Chris Thompson from Agaric. Micky described the path toward platform cooperativism as a bridge. We can’t expect full investment in free software or platform cooperativism, but we can encourage incremental steps onto the bridge leading us toward platforms (and software source code) we can own. An integration of alternative software can liberate us from proprietary control. Switching to a Linux operating system from proprietary software is one example.

Chris emphasized the hybrid nature of platform cooperativism and drew attention to the hybrid Black Star Co-op in Austin. Although Black Star isn’t a cooperative platform, its innovative hybrid ownership structure bodes well for the multi-stakeholder ownership that platform cooperativism advocates.

The advent of platform cooperativism is fitting for the mission Agaric has been touting. An additional Drupal project was announced this month giving users a role in the development of online tools for organizations. It’s called Drutopia, announced by Chocolate Lily Web Projects. And in November, another platform cooperativism event is happening at The New School in New York.

Using a Cooperative Digital Platform

From the home page of Loomio.org

An image from the home page of Loomio.org

My excitement grows for cooperative platforms on the web. They can bring actual democracy and equality to the web by establishing diverse stakeholders as owners. And the movement is growing (See my earlier blog post: Platforms for a New Economy.) But we’re all wondering how they will be built, and be influential. We can start by looking at Loomio as a successful example. It’s a worker-owned web application that brings to us a networking and decision-making platform.

I used Loomio for a recent political campaign. Our team was a group of 18. The best feature for us was preserving conversation threads. We were able to refer to past conversations saved in one central location. The collection of threads that accumulated was ideal for including newcomers in a particular discussion. Some exclusive conversations did need to take place by email instead of Loomio, but in Loomio anyone could start a new thread with a title and description. And the responses to a thread can be sent to your email address.

The decision-making aspect of the platform, consisting of proposals and voting, was useful. The few times we used this feature, the interface was clear and effective. You can start a proposal at any time, and a graphic pie chart tracks the popularity of the proposal. I see a lot of potential for this feature, and think it could be a great municipal voting tool.

Beyond our use of Loomio, the New Zealand based co-op is successfully deploying the platform globally. A recent Yes magazine article written by Nathan Schneider describes how they obtained unique financing while retaining the social mission. They used redeemable preference shares with investors that keeps bottom-line decision-making with the cooperative. My brief research to understand redeemable preference shares brought me to the Wikipedia page: hybrid security which may or may not clarify them for you.

Loomio is a practical tool, and a co-op. With the advancement of UX in user-friendly platforms such as this, we can start to use and appreciate real democratically-owned services on the web.

Co-ops and the Law

The Harvard Law School has provided community access to legal services with the Transactional Law Clinics (TLC) since 1979. TLC includes the Community Enterprise Project (CEP) in Boston’s Jamaica Plain. These organizations have put out the legal guide “Tackling the Law, Together” in a PDF that describes legal issues and opportunities for co-ops. This means legal structure! tax law! employment law! Yes, it is exciting stuff;  developing legal strategies essential for co-ops. Although Harvard and the clinics are Massachusetts-based, the report addresses US law generally as much as possible. It was published in coordination with The Boston Center for Community ownership, The Boston Impact Initiative, the California-based Sustainable Economies Law Center.

Legal structure is the first building block of a formal co-op and there are some to choose from: corporation, benefit corporation (different from the “b-corp” designation), cooperative corporation, and LLC (limited Liability company). Non-profit status is considered not applicable to co-ops that generate profits for owners. Then, did you know, that separate from your legal structure, you can be taxed as something else? And the Subchapter T of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) can be especially advantageous.

“It is important to keep in mind that the legal structure of a business is distinct from its tax structure. For example, a corporation does not have to be taxed under Subchapter C of the IRC (Internal Revenue Code); instead, it can choose to be taxed much like a partnership if it elects to be taxed under Subchapter S. Similarly, an LLC can elect to be taxed as a partnership (under Subchapter K), as a C-corporation (under Subchapter C), or as a cooperative corporation (under Subchapter T).”

See the report for more on tax law, immigration law, co-op conversions, and more. It’s a 47-page overview and “does not constitute legal advice” – like this blog post.

Laura Flanders is taking notice, too, of cooperative law. She recently interviewed Janelle Orsi from Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) on the subject. Also interviewed was Micky Metts from the Agaric cooperative. So, check out the report from CEP and the Laura Flanders interview.

Black Co-ops Matter!

Like Black lives, Black co-ops matter, now and historically. Collective Courage by Jessica Gordon Nembhard is an inspiring and thorough survey of the long history of collective action taken by African Americans in the US as far back as the 1700s. Against adversity, the African American community has created a legacy of cooperation that still exists. The earliest efforts built communal ways of supporting each other, and built the foundation for formal businesses. These efforts enriched many during the ebb and flow of US co-op history throughout which African Americans have been contributors.

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MGAWOC: Make Google a Worker-Owned Co-operative

What is more ubiquitous than Google? Because of this, I declare today the first day of MGAWOC: Make Google a Worker-owned Co-operative. Below are 10 co-operative initiatives to inspire a Google worker-owned co-operative. And they happen to be Google’s company philosophy (slightly modified here). Google lists them at What We Believe.

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Co-op matters in March

Frontier Co-op
I write about co-ops, but I don’t belong to one. Or so I thought. I just received a membership patronage check of $15.83 from the Frontier Co-op. My wife and I are members and order supplies from their enormous catalog. The items are discounted as long as you order in bulk with a group of people. In a letter they sent with the check, I learned the co-op had their most profitable year in 2014 with a net income of $15.5 million. For that year the co-op is returning 35% of the members’ overall earnings in cash. Since starting in 1976, the last ten years have been an unprecedented success for the co-op with a growth rate of 12% during that decade. It’s great to be a part of it. (more…)