In the fall of 2021, The New School’s Platform Cooperativism Consortium (PCC) and Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society (BKC) collaborated on a nine-week, research sprint exploring cooperative approaches to data governance. Members of the research cohort, a dozen early-career scholars and leaders in the cooperative movement, had diverse academic and professional backgrounds, including law, computer science, education, social work, business, and ethnography. Across nine time zones, participants convened with founders of data coops, municipal policymakers, community leaders, and scholars each week to discuss pressing topics at the intersection of cooperatives and technology while also working in groups to produce three research papers. Participants presented early versions of these outputs at The New Common Sense: Forging the Cooperative Digital Economy conference in Berlin. (Video of the panel is accessible here.)
What are the opportunities and challenges presented by bottom-up, participatory data governance structures? How can the cooperative principles contribute to the reshaping of the digital economy?
The Alternative Data Futures: Cooperative Principles, Data Trusts, and the Digital Economy research sprint was prompted by increased interest in cooperative governance models as alternatives to highly centralized data governance regimes. The sprint was centered on two questions: first, what are the opportunities and challenges presented by bottom-up, participatory data governance structures? Second, how can the cooperative principles contribute to the reshaping of the digital economy?
With these questions in mind, the working groups contributed to research in three areas:
- the definitional and practical barriers of a platform cooperative certification process;
- the effects of existing and proposed data governance and digital competition legislation on data cooperatives in Europe; and
- how Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs), a type of blockchain-based organization, might learn from cooperative practices, and in turn, inform co-ops through new technical approaches to governance.
Certifying Platform Cooperatives?
The first working group’s focus shifted from a normative investigation into what would be required for a certification regime that supports platform cooperatives and their members to an empirical assessment of existing norms, practices, and needs concerning data governance within the nascent platform cooperative ecosystem. Surveys of cooperatives in the Platform Cooperative Consortium’s Directory of the Digital Cooperative Economy and the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives Directory, as well as several interviews, were used to achieve this practical approach.
Although limited by a small sample size, the first group’s survey results revealed significant heterogeneity in cooperative data collection, management, and monetization practices. These findings, combined with several qualitative interviews, painted a picture of an environment that was too new and diverse for a formal certification process or shared standards but needed greater collaboration among cooperatives on best practices, as well as legal and technical guidance for newcomers.
Data Cooperatives in Europe: A Legal and Empirical Investigation
The second working group conducted empirical and legal research on the impact of existing and proposed European (EU) data and privacy laws on data cooperatives. The research team approached this question in three parts. First, interviews with several data cooperative founders were conducted to assess the actual effects of the legal landscape on data cooperative business models and practices. They evaluated the cooperatives’ ability to navigate legal and policy challenges, as well as their willingness to collaborate with public institutions. Second, the research team decided to focus on the potential impact—and limitations—of the proposed Data Governance Act (DGA) and Digital Markets Act (DMA) on data cooperatives. The second group also considered the implications of the most widely applicable and significant data protection laws in Europe, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the ePrivacy Directive. Their paper concludes with concrete steps to promote the growth of Europe’s data cooperative ecosystem, including specific improvements to the proposed legislation and the incorporation of data cooperatives into policymaking spaces such as the European Data Innovation Board, public-private partnerships, and other initiatives described in the paper. The group submitted the abstract to the Florence School of Regulation’s annual conference. If accepted, they will present their work this June in Florence, Italy.
Grounding Decentralized Technologies in the Cooperative Principles
Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) and cooperatives are plausibly aligned in areas such as “democratic member control and the freedom for individuals to come together for their own mutual benefit” (Charles Adjovu). Despite these congruent values, there has been little research into the strength of these connections, either theoretically or practically. The third group of researchers contributed to closing this gap by conducting a comparative study of the governance and coordination challenges confronting cooperatives, particularly platform cooperatives, and those confronting DAOs. The research team also examined whether platform coops could apply the technical governance mechanisms used by DAOs. The third group’s paper identifies some areas of overlapping concern after surveying existing scholarship on governance challenges confronting platform cooperatives and DAOs. The authors conclude with specific recommendations for areas where DAOs and cooperatives can learn from one another.
We’re Not Done Yet!
This recap of “Alternative Data Futures: Cooperative Principles, Data Trusts, and the Digital Economy” provides a snapshot of the participants’ work, but these efforts are ongoing.
Kelsie Nabben, Novita Puspasari, Megan Kelleher, and Sadhana Sanjay, the sprint’s third working group, won a grant from MetagovDAO to engage their research community and build on their work. After this sprint, Adriane Clomax’s dissertation research will concentrate on cooperatives in general, and she has developed an interest in furthering her research on platform cooperatives. Several participants will continue their research as 2022 fellows at The New School’s Institute for the Cooperative Digital Economy, culminating in the PCC/ITS conference in Rio de Janeiro in November 2022. Some participants will extend their work in the sprint by joining the BKC/PCC working group on platform cooperatives.
The sprint’s living syllabus and video documentation of selected presentations are now available on Wikiversity as a resource that other universities and organizations can replicate and adapt.
Over the course of nine weeks, the insights gained have shifted the Overton window for (platform) coops a bit, opening up new avenues for practice and research. If you want to get involved in this work, you can start here!