Better market solutions through shared resources and co-operation - Interview with Yochai Benkler

10 Aug 2015

Yochai 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.

In November the acknowledged author and academic will be speaking about collaborative production at the Alliance’s “Towards 2020” global conference in Antalya, Turkey. In his presentation he will discuss the role of shared resources and human co-operation to achieve better market 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”, explained Yochai Benkler.

“The challenge for co-ops is 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.”

Mr Benkler 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. He thinks three major legal trends will impact on co-operatives in the coming years. One of these is intellectual property law, which, he argued, was being expanded to include various new areas. He gave the example of agricultural co-operatives, which might not be able to use certain products that may embody patented inventions.

Changes in the openness of communication should also be taken into account, he said. “If in the past the openness of communication crucial, from wireless policy, to neutrality, to home broadband policy, we’re 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,” added Prof Benkler.

“While it's hard to imagine that this closure would prevent simple communication within a co-op, it does risk to place co-op workers and consumers more in reliance to platforms owned by someone else such as Facebook or Google, more subject to data collection and privacy infringement and more subject to constrains on application and platforms that can be used over time. So 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”.

Trade agreements could also surprise co-ops with constrains to operate in certain areas, says Prof Benkler. He believes that regional agreements tend to be less focused on actual trade and more focused 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 help seed community-scale web journalism co-operatives in underserved communities. “This is a severely underexplored area,” says Yochai Benkler.

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

The academic also thinks that co-operatives could show how they are different by making a creditable 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 behaviour and inputs that would lead them in the direction to make more money for advertisers. It’s critical for co-ops to resist this trend”, he said.

“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 businesses and its customers and the extent on data dimension this is particularly powerful because so much of the developing model is one in which the consumer sells their autonomy by making themselves more susceptible to manipulation for advertisers for purchases for behaviour changes in exchange for price free or lower prices products.”