Advancing Digital Democracy through Cooperation: Future of Internet

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Summary of interview with Shaun Fensom by Stefan Ivanovski. Check out the full interview on YouTube or using your favorite podcast player.

Shaun Fensom, a cooperative pioneer with over three decades of experience in internet technology and the cooperative movement, shares his insights on cooperative initiatives, digital democracy, and artificial intelligence (AI). As the co-founder of Poptel, one of United Kingdom’s (UK) earliest Internet Service Providers (ISPs), Shaun highlights the pioneering role of Poptel in connecting Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and human rights organizations worldwide.

His notable contributions include connecting to the internet South Africa’s governing party, the African National Congress (ANC) during apartheid, and UK’s Labour Party.

Furthermore, in collaboration with the United States National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA), Poptel launched the .coop top-level internet domain, serving cooperatives globally. Today, the .coop domain is co-managed by the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) and the NCBA.

Internet is a Cooperative Endeavor

Shaun Fensom started with cooperatives by co-founding Poptel in the 1980s. Poptel was an Internet Service Provider (ISP) that operated on the principles of equality and democracy, with workers having an equal say in the decision-making process. Poptel operated as a worker cooperative, where each worker is an owner, and each worker has a one voice and one vote. In nutshell, worker cooperatives are organizations where each person gets one vote. Unlike in a shareholder democracy, where one share equals one vote, worker cooperative embody workplace democracy, where one worker has one vote.

The experiences with Poptel have inspired Shaun Fensom’s interest in cooperatives and their potential to democratize the internet and promote more equitable societies. Although, Poptel ceased to exist in its original form, the .coop domain and some of the original ideas still live on. The challenges of managing a worker cooperative have inspired a discussion about some of the “advantages” and “disadvantages” of cooperatives.

What are the Opportunities and challenges of cooperatives?

According to Shaun Fensom, some of the advantages or opportunities for worker cooperative are:

Democratization of resources: Cooperatives can help democratize ownership and control of resources, which can promote more equitable societies.

Worker empowerment: Worker cooperatives can give workers a direct say in the decision-making process and a direct stake in the success of the business, which can lead to greater engagement and job satisfaction.

Research that backs up the claims: In 2015, Virginie Pérotin published What do we really know about worker co‑operatives?, the 2022 article in Organization Science by Trevor Young-Hyman, Nathalie Magne, and Douglas Kruse, A Real Utopia Under What Conditions? The Economic and Social Benefits of Workplace Democracy in Knowledge-Intensive Industries or Michelle Chen’s article in The Nation titled Worker Cooperatives Are More Productive Than Normal Companies highlight evidence of the higher performance of cooperative relative to traditional enterprises in the same industry.

Customer engagement: Consumer cooperatives can give customers a sense of ownership and engagement with the business, which can lead to greater loyalty and satisfaction. Shaun cited the employee-owned company, John Lewis Partnership in the UK, as an example of a company that is employee-owned and has a strong sense of customer engagement because all employees have a stake in the outcome of the company.

Social and environmental impact: Cooperatives can prioritize social and environmental impact over profit, which can lead to more sustainable and responsible business practices.

Despite the promises of worker cooperatives, there are some challenges that Shaun has identified, including:

Difficulty in raising capital: Cooperatives may face challenges in raising capital, which can limit their growth and competitiveness. Cooperative startups in the tech space cannot raise capital the same way that traditional startups do, as worker cooperatives do not want to give up equity in exchange for funding.

Decision-making challenges: Cooperatives may face challenges in making decisions in a timely and efficient manner, especially if there are many members with different opinions and priorities. As Shaun pointed out in the interview, this is something that can be overcome by learning how to manage an organization democratically.

Limited accountability: Cooperatives may face challenges in holding members accountable for their actions, especially if there are no clear mechanisms for enforcing rules and regulations.

Limited expertise: Cooperatives may face challenges in accessing the expertise and resources needed to compete in a rapidly changing and complex business environment. This is something that is a challenge for many businesses, not cooperatives in particular.

For Digital Democracy, Access and control matter more than ownership

Shaun sees digital democracy as the use of the internet and digital communications to increase democracy and give ordinary people more control over collective decision-making. This can be done either through engagement with their work or at the level of the state or local government. However, he also notes there are different interpretations of digital democracy means.

He recognizes that digital democracy can foster the political conditions necessary for democratic decision-making and active citizen participation. However, he also raises concerns about the negative consequences of algorithms in social media, which can undermine digital democracy by driving traffic based on personal biases and preferences.

Given his experience with cooperatives, he argues that in the context of the internet access and control are more important than ownership. In his work with cooperative network infrastructure, ownership of a piece of fiber does not matter as much as being able to control it and get access to it. He believes that if ways to control resources without ownership are engineered, that is sufficient. He also mentions that he thinks there is a role for cooperatives in democratizing AI, but he is not sure how yet.

Ownership only matters because control matters. If you can engineer ways to control things without ownership, fine.

Shaun Fensom, Co-founder, Cooperative Network Infrastructure

For more on the impacts on digital democracy, check out the two other blog posts that discuss the importance of open-source software and privacy: Why Open-Source Matters for Digital Democracy? Interview with Plausible Analytics – Lifestyle Democracy and Why Does Privacy Matter for (Digital) Democracy? – Lifestyle Democracy.

The Impacts of Artificial Intelligence (AI) on Democracy is uncertain

Shaun has stated that he has been waiting for the time of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), whereby robots would be capable of replacing wide range of tasks that humans can do. Present day Artificial Intelligence (AI) shows potential for change, however, the impacts of AI on democracy are uncertain.

He believes that AGI has the ability to abolish poverty and create a utopia once we have machines that can do all the things that need doing. However, he also notes that it is equally easy to see how AI could create a dystopia, and this is what is scaring everyone now. He mentions that the impact of AI on democracy is difficult to predict, and the sequencing of what kind of AI arrives in what order and how it gets used is crucial to answering this question. He also notes that AI-generated misinformation could seriously distort the next elections in the United States and the United Kingdom, and it is unclear how we can use AI to combat this.

AI has the ability to abolish poverty and create a utopia once we have machines that can do all the things that need doingWhat’s really scaring everyone now is that it equally is easy to see how it could create a dystopia.

Shaun Fensom, Co-founder, Cooperative Network Infrastructure

Regarding cooperatives, he believes that there is a role for cooperatives in democratizing AI, but he is not quite sure how yet. He notes that the cooperative movement needs to get on this now, as the human race needs to democratize AI. He also believes that some of the notions of the cooperative movement, such as the democratization of ownership or control of resources, should be applied to AI. However, he acknowledges that these are difficult questions, and there are many debates to have before we can actually understand how we can democratize AI.

The cooperative movement needs to get on this [democratizing AI] now!

Shaun Fensom, Co-founder, Cooperative Network Infrastructure

In summary, Shaun’s insights underscore the immense potential of cooperatives and digital democracy to pave the way for more equitable and democratic societies. While he acknowledges the complexities involved, his vision aligns with the goal of challenging the status quo and promoting a better future.

Action Points

Promote cooperative initiatives: Advocate for the formation of cooperatives that embody democratic decision-making and ownership, working towards the democratization of resources and the establishment of more equitable societies.

Foster digital democracy: Support initiatives that uphold digital democracy principles, including open access to information, online forums for discussion, and tools for citizen engagement. Encourage transparency, accountability, and citizen participation in decision-making processes.

Address the negative effects of algorithms: Recognize the potential negative effects of algorithms on digital democracy, such as the creation of filter bubbles and echo chambers that reinforce existing biases and limit exposure to diverse perspectives. This can involve advocating for greater transparency and accountability in the use of algorithms, as well as promoting media literacy and critical thinking skills.

Address workplace alienation: Acknowledge and address the negative consequences of workplace alienation, which can lead to disengagement and dissatisfaction among workers. Encourage more democratic decision-making processes in the workplace and create opportunities for workers to have a direct stake in the success of the business.

By pursuing these action points, we can contribute to the advancement of digital democracy and cooperative initiatives, fostering a future where power is decentralized, and everyone has a voice in shaping their destiny.

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Hi! I am Stefan Ivanovski, founder of Lifestyle Democracy, a knowledge platform that empowers individuals and communities through sharing and teaching how to apply actionable democratic principles and practices, one day at a time.

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