Electrification 2.0: Rural broadband co-ops are filling the void left by indifferent monopolists

Writing in Wired, frequent Boing Boing contributor Clive Thompson praises the rise of rural broadband co-operatives that are springing up to provide internet access to their far-flung, widespread communities, comparing them to the rural electrification co-ops that sprang up to provide power to farmers neglected by the monopolistic Edison trusts.

Thompson is both onto something and somewhat off the mark here. The comparison between electrification and broadband is a very apt one: without electricity, farmers were being left behind by their century's march to progress; the same is true of internet access. And as with the Edison trusts' neglect of rural customers, the broadband monopolies have left communities in the lurch, failing their children, prompting the rise of these co-ops to fill the void.

But here's where Thompson misses the mark. In his article, he asks, "What if, instead of kvetching and waiting for tech monopolies to reform, we set up more user-run co-ops to operate upstart services we actually want? Imagine co-op social networks that wouldn’t need to algorithmically lure users into endless feed-scrolling “engagement” to keep the ad dollars sluicing."

The problem is that the incumbent Big Cable monopolists have created insurmountable regulatory hurdles to keep new entrants out of their markets; and Big Tech has erected unassailable walls around its businesses to stop us from "disrupting" the new digital empires (disruption for thee, but not for me, is Big Tech's rallying cry).

Forming co-ops is an exciting idea, but remember that (for example) Facebook was only able to grow by making tools that scraped Myspace, to let new Facebook users talk to their friends still on Myspace, so they didn't have to choose between one and the other -- and then, Facebook sued and destroyed a competitor that tried to do the same thing for people ready to move on from Facebook. Starting a co-op alternative to Facebook (or Google, or Twitter, or the Ios App Store) without being able to provide an interim step between the old world and the new world is a doomed enterprise.

Apple attained mainstream success by creating tools like Pages and Keynote that read the files you'd already created on your Windows machine; before then, the incompatibilities between MS Office versions for Mac and Windows provided so much friction for would-be switchers that Mac users were thoroughly unwelcome in business environments, and freelancers often kept a Windows machine around to talk to their clients. If Microsoft had been able to use the law to shut down Pages and Keynote, that would be the situation between Apple and Microsoft today.

We don't live in that world anymore. The rise of monopolistic tech giants was enabled by the abuse of laws like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and, in turn, these companies strategically expanded these laws through careful litigation, until they've turned into state licenses to monopolize.

The answer to broadband equity is the same as rural electrification: co-ops that create constituencies for the new services, and then trustbusting state action to provide them, overruling the market power of the monopolists. We need a new deal for broadband and decentralization: breakup of the Big Tech octopuses, publicly owned broadband utilities, and an end to our new gilded age.

That spirit is worth emulating in the rest of the online world. Many folks are annoyed at Big Tech for tolerating abuse, for spying, for sneakily triggering compulsive use. What if, instead of kvetching and waiting for tech monopolies to reform, we set up more user-run co-ops to operate upstart services we actually want? Imagine co-op social networks that wouldn’t need to algorithmically lure users into endless feed-scrolling “engagement” to keep the ad dollars sluicing. (They also wouldn’t have to chase meta­static growth to please VCs.) “Co-ops are owned by the members, so it’s very bottom up,” notes Jim Matheson, head of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Yeah, I know, this is nuttily idealistic. Alternative social platforms like Diaspora haven’t exactly thrived. But then again, maybe the goal isn’t to be huge but rather, as with the DIY co-ops, to serve tightly focused communities. Even little efforts could effectively spook incumbents into reform. The academic Rob Seamans has found that “the threat of entry is enough.” When a farmers’ co-op plans to roll out broadband, the big companies suddenly decide it’s time to upgrade.

Rural Americans Are Rebooting the Spirit of the Internet [Clive Thompson/Wired]