Protocol Cooperatives

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Morshed Mannan:

"An early proponent of such cooperatives is Michel Bauwens, who refers to them as ‘protocol cooperatives’. In P2P Accounting for Planetary Survival, a report co-authored with Alex Pazaitis, he defines protocol cooperatives as:

- “global open source repositories of knowledge, code and design, that allow humanity to create infrastructures for the mutualization of the main provisioning systems (such as food, habitat, mobility), and that are governed by the various stakeholder involved, including the affected citizenry” (Bauwens and Pazaitis, 2019, p. 9).

Bauwens envisions protocol cooperatives as being a global organizational structure that enables such mutualization, with cities, businesses and individuals as members (Bauwens and Niaros, 2017, pp. 20, 53). He is of the view that the creation of such secondary cooperative entities, with municipal governments championing such efforts, will help prevent wasteful efforts at duplicating technology across cities and countries (p. 62). The crux of this argument is that it is not possible to build or overlay a digital ‘commons’ on a privatized infrastructure (Mejias, 2013). As a shared infrastructure,5 these protocols should be managed as common goods (Frischmann, 2014, pp. 3–4), with the cooperative structure providing the requisite governance rules and norms. The sense in which protocol is used is thus deliberately technologically neutral and instead, denotes a particular “management style” (Galloway, 2004, p. 3) that emanates from the technological infrastructure used. This is an acknowledgment of the fact that while protocols, such as blockchain and distributed ledger protocols, may be the technological infrastructure that is collectively built and used, other organizational technologies may complement or supplant them.

Relatedly, by referring to protocols as a form of management, it brings to the fore the fact that it is humans, and not only machines, that are organized by a network. It also highlights that technology and organizations mutually shape each other (Luhmann, 2018, p. 302). Attempting to change protocols, from being centralized to being decentralized or distributed, is mirrored among human beings in how they organize and collaborate, such as through the use of federations, franchises, alliances, joint ventures and cooperatives. Conversely, efforts at creating a constellation of horizontal or distributed organizational structures are likely to lead to the adoption of technological infrastructures that reflect these principles, as seen in earlier community radio networks, local internet mesh networks, libre software communities and the contemporary interest in distributed ledgers (Baig et al., 2015; Barlow, 1988; Cammaerts, 2009; Selimi et al., 2018). In short, the protocol and the cooperative ‘mirror’ each other.

Furthermore, in Bauwens’ view, protocol cooperatives should operate on a not-for-profit basis and be dedicated towards the benefit of its member institutions and individuals (Bauwens and Pazaitis, 2019, p. 24). There are, arguably, already cooperatives that match such a definition. One notable example is OCLC—a global library cooperative—that stewards WorldCat, the world’s largest library database, which was founded in Ohio in 1967. The OCLC cooperative is a firm comprised of 17,983 library-members in 123 countries, a distributed governance structure and a nonprofit corporation, OCLC, Inc., dedicated to the development of technological infrastructure for the benefit of its library members. This structure has been carefully developed over time, with Arthur D. Little, Inc., a management consultancy firm, recommending the combination of a “tightly held, nonprofit corporation” and a “network cooperative” in 1978 (Arthur D. Little, 1978, p. 81; Hanawalt, 1998, p. 12); a structure that bears a strong resemblance to the cooperatives that are the focus of this study.

What is important to note from Bauwens’ description is that the use of the term ‘cooperative’ is intended to be evocative and generic rather than in reference to the cooperative legal entity form that exists in many countries. While this may be off-putting for those who have a narrower view of what a cooperative is, it is necessary to note that cooperative law academics such as Hagen Henrÿ have also written that (registered) cooperatives may have to cooperate and form novel types of “private-public entities” with other cooperatives, civil society actors and public institutions, as a means to address the systemic challenges presented by the power of data-driven tech businesses (Henrÿ, 2017, p. 125). Hence, and as shown in this study, shared-services platform cooperatives may manifest as different legal entities and network structures. Beyond the issue of organizational form, the technology that is to be cooperatively owned is left deliberately open-ended, so as to include a wide-variety of projects and initiatives, from clientserver protocols (e.g. email transfer protocols such as SMTP) to distributed ledgers (e.g. forks of the EOS chain) to distributed computing technologies (e.g. Holochain).

Thus, any conceptualization of shared-services platform cooperatives has to be technologically agnostic."