Platform Co-ops Offer an Alternative to Big Tech’s Monopolies

By Kenzie Love

The problems with the so-called “gig economy”, in which workers for Uber and other platforms carry all the responsibilities of being an employee while receiving none of the benefits, have been well-documented. The desire for an alternative to the enormous power of big tech is also readily apparent. But many of the monopolies in question have become so entrenched, some wonder whether there are any real alternatives. Platform co-operatives, however, may offer one.

Trebor Scholz, who has studied platform co-operatives extensively, observes that they cannot be reduced to a single “model”. Scholz likens them instead to a “constantly unfolding set of experiments”, which exist in a wide variety of sectors around the world.  Despite this diversity, platform co-ops are generally understood as digital platforms that are collectively owned and governed by the people who depend on and participate in them, in contrast to platforms that deliver the bulk of their value to shareholders. Platform co-ops in Canada include Victoria’s Stocksy, which sells stock photographs; Modo, a Vancouver-based car-sharing co-operative; and Eva, a ride-sharing app which originated in Quebec.

So what binds these — and other platform co-ops  — together? In Scholz’s words, “Cooperative ownership in the digital economy means that platforms put the needs of their users ahead of profit maximization.” Practically speaking, this means that people who work for platform co-ops have more control over their labour, and people who use them have more control over their data. For Iva Jankovic, a Research and Education Partnerships Manager with the BC Co-op Association who has also helped develop multiple platform co-ops, these are important features.

“The Internet is kind of the domain of our society right now, that’s where a lot of our social interactions and economic interactions are mediated online and by digital platforms,” they say. “And so I think there’s a lot of inequities in that space in terms of ownership and control of information and of the actual technologies themselves, so I think platform co-ops are one way of democratizing that control.”

But despite their many selling points, platform co-ops aren’t going to displace the platform monopolies anytime soon, for the very reasons the monopolies became so powerful in the first place. As Dr. Jamie Woodcock observes in an article in Tech Monitor, deep venture capital funding and legally questionable employment practices have allowed platform companies to offer artificially low prices that no cooperatively owned rival could ever match.  “Where dominant capitalist platforms operate,” Woodcock further observes, “it is very difficult for platform co-ops to compete.”

Absent a transformation in the economy, change on this front might seem unlikely. That said, platform co-ops can play an important role in working towards such a transformation if they are seen as one of many possible tools for achieving it. 

“The first challenge to address is imagination,” Co-operatives UK’s Ludovica Rogers says in the Tech Monitor article. “We are becoming so dependent on Big Tech that we are starting to believe that there are no alternatives to the big monopolistic platforms. Though platform co-ops are still few in number and small in scale, they show that another way is actually possible.”

As Scholz observes: “Co-ops, unions, ESOPS, B-corps, DAOs, open coops, Exit to Community, and so forth, all have their proponents and detractors. But what matters most is not the form of the organization but the positive results that it achieves for people.”

“What matters most,” he adds, “is that we foster an atmosphere of mutual support and cooperation rooted in the conviction that we are all working toward shared goals.”