Co-operatives and Open Source
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
The year was 1844. The industrial revolution had recently changed everything. New technology redefined how work was done and power structures that had withstood generations were upended and rewritten in a few short years. Wealth concentrated quickly into the hands of a powerful new class of industrialists thanks to market forces, while working rights and conditions plummeted to unfathomable new lows for even skilled workers.
But there was a better alternative. A CO-OPERATIVE MOVEMENT IS BORN
Faced otherwise with poverty, the members of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers created the first modern co-operative, founded on the Rochdale Principles that are the basis of all modern co-operatives today. Co-operatives reject discrimination, encourage democratic control and member participation, education and training of their membership, and collaboration with other co-operatives. The idea was hugely successful, with 1,500 co-operatives operating in Britain by the turn of the 20th century. This is not simply wishful thinking, but a viable alternative to capitalism, which relies on flawed oversight of government checks and balances, while allowing the same corporations to lobby the government overseeing them.
The year is 2020. The Internet has changed everything. New technology redefined how work is done and power structures that withstood generations were upended and rewritten in a few short years. Global wealth concentrated quickly into the hands of a powerful group of software companies. This handful of for-profit corporations control the all data which underpins the modern workplace, and hoard this data for their own purposes, despite it being provided by, and rightfully belonging to the end users. Services are cheap or free but always with a catch, of the user’s privacy coming second, after maximizing any potential profit for the data. The so called gig economy wields this technology lock-in alongside insatiable customer demand to bypass the hard fought labour protections of the last 150 years.
But there was a better alternative. OPEN SOURCE IS BORN
The modern Open Source Movement was born in the 1990s, when the Internet was new and Netscape Communications released the source code to Netscape Navigator. For some context, back then Microsoft was in the middle of a campaign to kill Netscape (a competitor to Internet Explorer ) and also to eliminate Linux and the whole open source model (“a cancer” as Steve Balmer described it in 2001). The Open Source concept is simple: Developers make their software source code available for free to anyone and everyone. People can use it as they like, including modifying it. But they must also share their modifications, for others to also use. The power of this open collaboration was hugely successful. Projects multiplied rapidly, built to run on the open source UNIX operating systems (Linux and the BSD’s). In 2008, the website GitHub was born, and the complicated source control technology that facilitates group collaboration was suddenly extremely easy to use. The open source ecosystem exploded in size and popularity. Today, the collection of open source software available is like the fusion of a massive public library with a huge community mural. The code is there for all to use and improve upon, and work is done out in the open with everyone able to see what is happening and provide feedback and improvements. Work is done almost exclusively by volunteers, who come from hugely diverse backgrounds, and is managed democratically by those doing the work on the project. This situation is a parallel evolution of those same co-operative principles from 1844, and like back then, it’s a powerful idea where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The vast majority of the infrastructure used by the software companies who control all our data is now actually open source software. It runs the networking infrastructure, the servers, provides the programming languages, etc. that run most everything our modern world now depends on. The power and profits remain centralized in those same few companies solely because they retain ownership and control of the user data.
There is a clear synergy between co-operatives and open source, as they both share so many of the same principles and values. CanTrust Hosting Co-op is a technology co-op that provides fairly priced business tools and managed web hosting for value-aligned organizations. By using open source software to consolidate all the tools together, we are able to provide a complete set of business tools for considerably cheaper than cloud vendors. There are no per-user fees and no payments to multiple organizations. As a Co-operative, we believe fair pricing should be based on actual resource usage, not by what generates the most profit. We are 100% Canadian owned and operated, using only our own computers and Canadian networks. Your data is protected by Canadian privacy laws, and is beyond the jurisdiction of any foreign legislation including the US Patriot or CLOUD acts. We believe people must own and control their data. We never sell, data mine, or otherwise use customer data.
Open Source has already won the technical battle. Even Microsoft knows this and is now the primary benefactor of the Open Source movement. It did not do this because it had a choice in the matter, but because it can see that there’s been a paradigm shift. The future of software technology is in Open Source, collaboration, and communication.
But there is much to do still in the battle for control over the data that drives everything. A better alternative exists and Technology Co-ops are leading the charge for digital rights. The Platform Co-operativism movement, borne of the fusion of technology, open source, and co-operative principles, aims to disrupt the disrupters. A better alternative exists. We can replace the corporation-owned power structures with co-operatively run equivalents, where cost and wealth distribution are fairer and where power belongs where it should, in the hands of those who own the data in the first place. As those creating the data, we the people are the ones holding the power, and Open Source technology provides the tools we need to build this future.