Keep the internet public. The market will thank us later

Nathan Schneider on Interoperability
September 27, 2021

The Internet is busted. Huge corporations are calling the shots, extractive business models prevail. And safe and privacy-friendly online spaces have become scarce. How do we move from extractive practices to regenerative ones? How do we retain public control and move to a people-centered internet?

In our research on a Shared Digital Europe and public-civic spaces, we argue that public and civic actors need to build these alternative spaces. And that interoperability is an essential principle, through which they can together form a bigger ecosystem.

Over the course of summer, we consulted friends and experts on the question: how do we get to public-civic spaces, what role does interoperability play? And what is holding governments and civil society back from making the shift? In this series, we share the insights that these conversations produced, one at a time.

First up in this series is Nathan Schneider, who helped kickstart the platform cooperativism movement and co-edited the book Ours to Hack and to Own: The Rise of Platform Cooperativism. Platform cooperativism relates to the commons in many ways. They both highlight shared ownership and advocate democratic governance. They both look to build alternatives that could replace profit-seeking, shareholder-driven short-termism. And they both are critical of tech optimists who believe technology itself can quick-fix our societies’ challenges.

Cooperativism and open source

Schneider was motivated to combine technology with cooperativism when he saw the potential complementarity of the two. According to him, open source software lacks governability and a business model, and the cooperative movement lacks a technical strategy and innovation model besides venture capital. An example of such open source-cooperative marriages is,  a Mastodon-based social media platform that Schneider co-founded and which is run as a cooperative.

Platform cooperativism, tells Schneider, represents a kind of critique of open source raising the issue of ownership and how one governs technologies. A central problem of source code that is open to all, no strings attached, is that it’s vulnerable to exploitation and capture by freeriders ‘forking’ the source code without sharing the incomes that are generated by selling the software. These freeriders may very well be big companies. For example, the world’s most popular mobile operating system, Google’s Android, is based on the open source Linux operating system. Schneider explains that “the cooperative movement is a form of pushback to the way big companies have been the main financial beneficiaries of open source software development.”

An open internet

The internet itself is a prime example of what interoperability might look like. In principle, anyone with a computer can connect to the internet, write code, start a website, build software and so forth. No company owns the internet, no one decides who can use the internet and what they can do with it. But this has not been an inevitable outcome of history, says Schneider. “We could have a privately owned internet, those options were on the table and being built too. We could have had a government-controlled Internet. Russia had its option, Chile had its option.”

However, we ended up with an open and interoperable infrastructure. Why? “Basically, because the public sector – the US military – paid the bill and later on had the political will to keep it public and open. “The level of interoperability we have was a result of the public nature of that investment and I think we forgot that. So much of the glory instead goes to venture capital-backed investment and companies.”

What is interoperability?
Interoperability is the technical ability to plug one product or service into another product or service. It is also one of the founding principles of the internet, as it has been originally envisioned.There are many types of interoperability, like indifferent interoperability: think, for instance, of a car manufacturer that doesn’t care about what chargers are plugged in its cars’ standard cigarette lighters) or cooperative interoperability, when a technology developer wants other people and companies to create add-ons that fit the technology (such as phone manufacturers opting for a standard 3.5mm headphone minijack). And there is the opposite of cooperative interoperability, when a technology is downright hostile to others trying to connect, called adversarial interoperability.
There has been a lot of talk about interoperability in activist and policy circles, but not a clear view on what role it might play in developing digital spaces that are not dominated by huge for-profit corporations. There is also a focus on competitive interoperability (which regulates the big players) and not enough talk about generative interoperability, sustaining new ecosystems. You can read more about this in our background stories on interoperability and how we got to work with it: Interoperability 1: Policymaking is Worldbuilding and Interoperability 2: The Fork in the Road.

Interoperability is not enough

Making things interoperable means creating the conditions under which everyone can use, connect to and build on certain systems or technologies. This is important. Interoperability makes the benefits of new technologies or improvements to existing ones accessible to large groups of people, not just the developer carrying a license. This is precisely why individual players (i.e. private companies) don’t feel incentivized to participate and contribute to maintaining common goods. Take roads for instance, says Schneider: no one wants to take care of them but when they are maintained everybody benefits, including market actors.

There are, however, significant risks associated with interoperability. Risks regarding privacy, for instance, where opening up technologies might, paradoxically, end up violating people’s privacy rights. Facebook, for example, four years ago opened up its API (application programmer interface) to others – “an interoperability play”. Cambridge Analytica, a British digital marketing agency, then used the open personal data for political manipulation during Donald Trump’s political campaign that made him president.

Collective action problems

Interoperability alone is not enough. We also need “a more balanced capital stack” where not all funding comes from venture capital, Schneider argues. We need more public investment and investors that are not only concerned with increasing shareholder value. But reforming the ‘capital stack’ makes no sense on a national level, he adds, because for technology, territory is not an issue. Internationally or transnationally at the EU level, this challenge has a better chance of being addressed.

But the most pressing issue when it comes to creating public-civic online spaces, according to Schneider, is a collective action problem. What we need, he argues, is coalitions of entities and organizations that adopt open, interoperable systems simultaneously. Because when one switches from corporate to open source, licensing costs drop but support costs increase. The energy of shifting itself also is expensive. “When the city of Munich is adopted Libre Office instead of Microsoft Office, it was just Munich doing it. If you have a 100 cities of similar needs and similar size doing the same thing as Munich, we could massively reduce these costs by collaborating.”

The missing link

How many people use LibreOffice? How many civil servants know NextCloud, a substitute for Google’s cloud that the German government has adopted? Or Matrix, a secure chat protocol now being used by the French government? How many are swapping Facebook for open source Mastodon? When governments invest in tools like these, adopting them becomes easier for everyone. Schneider’s university lab uses LibreOffice, NextCloud, and Matrix, and so he sees direct benefit from those far-away public investments.

For now, the people using these open services and technologies belong to a tiny minority. That’s why, according to Schneider, there needs to be a more concerted strategy to invest resources in ways that lower the bar to entry for everyone. Governments can make these investments themselves, and they can encourage civil society organizations to do so as well. The more this happens, the more open technologies can become as accessible and user friendly as platforms like Google and YouTube, and what now seems ‘alternative’ can be the new ‘normal’.

Too often, the focus has been on individual users to adopt and learn to use open tools. But Schneider believes that, with proper investment, a market will emerge to provide a “middle layer” of services that can make open tools easy to use and help manage and maintain them—including cooperative services, owned and governed by their users. For instance, he is a member of a cooperative, May First Movement Technology, that provides many of the open software he uses on a daily basis. Schneider says, “We don’t want individuals to run their own software. I want to be able to trust the developers. They take a lot of weight off my back. I don’t have to think about version updates. That middle layer enabling accountable collective management is crucial.”

This blog series is a co-production of  Open Future and Commons Network in the context of the joint project Shared Digital Europe.

Sophie Bloemen (Shared Digital Europe, Commons Network),
Jens Kimmel (Shared Digital Europe, Commons Network)
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