Tag Archives: cooperatives

The internet belongs to all of us! Preserving net neutrality and the information commons

The internet belongs to all of us! Preserving net neutrality and the information commons

By Emma Guttman-Slater | LinkedIn and Symone Jackson | LinkedIn

Emma is the Strategic Communications Director and Symone is the Social Media and Digital Engagement Manager for Beneficial State Foundation, both based in Oakland, CA.

In two days, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote to repeal net neutrality, a 2015 ruling that enacted oversight of internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast and Verizon on the principle that they should treat all content on the internet equally.

If right now the internet is a “place where the lowest income user has the same access to unfiltered information as the wealthiest, and where individuals can successfully compete with multibillion dollar corporations”… Imagine the opposite.

A place where you have to “pay to play.” A place where the wealthy get high-speed internet access, while low-income families are confined to the slow lane, and our country becomes one where people must pay for access to information, entertainment, and the social and political capital that comes with expanding one’s network and connecting with other people. It’s not hard to imagine: We’re already seen this type of censorship in net neutrality violations where, for example, companies have censored text messages sent to reproductive rights activists who signed up to receive alerts.

Fair internet access is essential for shared prosperity.

The internet, whose development in the US was funded by the American public (the Department of Defense) is a public good, like electricity and broadcasting. We think about this in the context of banking, which can be viewed as quasi-public because of the privileges we the public have bestowed upon the banking system. Consider the FDIC: Federal deposit insurance set up by the government that makes it possible for someone to run a bank and hold your and my cash deposits.

Without limits, the financial institutions and ISPs serving us these public goods can harm citizens. During the financial crisis, we saw what happens when banks operate unchecked. And still, it’s not difficult to envision a future where access to services and information is in the hands of corporations, not the people, and the people have to pay those corporations to get access to free and available information. Getting rid of net neutrality might widen our already increasing economic inequality gap and would leave consumers unprotected. Not only would those with lower incomes be adversely affected by increased costs, but people of color also stand to be disproportionately disadvantaged — including their ability to make their voices heard on the internet — by the loss of the rule. Repealing net neutrality rules would also have significant impacts on health outcomes in rural communities where people rely on telehealth services, and in LGBTQ communities where young people often must turn to the internet to access health education resources.

A thriving economy is one in which everyone who desires to participate has the option to do so, and everyone has equal access and choice. A strong public utility backbone, which includes fair internet access, is essential for shared prosperity that comes out of full participation.

Image obtained from: https://imgur.com/gallery/zfxwB

It’s true that California, as an example, has innovation and prosperity a-plenty — the state has some of the richest zip codes in the country! Yet almost 20 percent of Californians live at or close to the poverty line. Prosperity is not shared. By establishing a pay-to-play internet, it’s clear who will win and who will lose.

We already know trickle-down economics doesn’t work. Earlier this month we saw a tax bill pass that will leave America’s wealthiest as the winners, at the expense of low and middle income communities. When the national debt balloons, we’ll hear the GOP’s call to cut costs to social services and healthcare to make up for it, further undermining low and middle income families’ chances at getting ahead. Privileging corporations and wealthy people does not foster economic opportunity; it leaves huge swaths of our country high and dry. This kind of increasing inequality is not only an affront to our sense of justice and fairness, but also to our democracy — everyone’s ability to access opportunity and to participate.

If you’ve been following the net neutrality debate, you’ve probably heard that 30 percent of Americans don’t have a choice when it comes to their ISP. Thirty seven percent can choose between only two. Without net neutrality disallowing filtered data lanes, huge chunks of the population stand to lose at the whims of these corporate ISPs.

Do you trust that your internet provider will put your interest above its own?

We also have to look at who has access right now. The rural-urban digital gap is stark: While 96 percent of urban Americans have access to broadband service, 39 percent of rural Americans lack access. There is also a gap within America’s major cities: In Detroit, for example, 40 percent of the population does not have any internet access. “Because of high foreclosure rates, and because of bad credit, a lot of telecom companies don’t offer good service within these areas, or they won’t even turn on their fibers so we have a lot of dark fiber that doesn’t have internet running though it throughout the city,” says Diana Nucera, director of the Detroit Community Technology Project. Luckily, community-based organizations are working locally to address this need by installing high speed internet systems in the homes of Detroiters who have not had internet access. Still Detroit is a prime example of what happens when consumers are left unprotected from entities that are supposed to serve their needs.

Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance explains that without net neutrality rules, major ISPs will be able to extract more money from their existing customer base, providing less of an incentive to expand their customer base into those areas lacking internet access now. The prediction makes sense: With even fewer rules, why should we expect to see investment into rural communities, which already face disinvestment? Mitchell says areas without access need rules to protect them. If there’s no hope for competition, there’s no hope for a marketplace to regulate behavior.

Without net neutrality, we are beholden to corporations whose primary interest is profit. These companies will further entrench their position as  “gatekeepers to the internet.” To paraphrase Mignon Clyburn at the FCC: Do you unequivocally trust that your internet provider will put your interest above its own?

Exactly.

So, what can you do?

  • Keep net neutrality in place.  Take action at battleforthenet.com
  • Invest directly into low- and middle-income communities, with their needs and economic and racial equity in mind. Think of all the untapped innovation and abundance in these communities, often out of reach because of severe unequal access to basic services. That might look like banking local, supporting local business, and investing your time and energy into power-building within these communities.
  • Look to the communities that are making it work with place-based solutions, cooperative solutions. There are more than 350 organizations across the US where cooperatives are currently delivering fiber to the people.

This blog post reflects the author’s personal views and opinions, and does not represent the views and opinions of Beneficial State Bank and/or Beneficial State Foundation.

Can cooperatives help us create an equitable economy?

Can cooperatives help us create an equitable economy?

By Salvador Menjivar | LinkedIn | Twitter

Salvador is Beneficial State Foundation’s Executive Director based in Oakland, CA.

There are many different types of cooperatives in the U.S. and some have been more successful than others in establishing roots in the communities where they reside. Contrary to popular narratives, co-ops are as American as apple pie, and they have a long history in the United States.

In 1752, Benjamin Franklin founded the country’s first federally-recognized cooperative business—the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire. Moreover, by refusing to ensure houses not up to fire safety standards, the company set new criteria, which would eventually be incorporated into building codes and zoning laws, for housing safety.

Cooperatives also played a key role in the South for enslaved Africans and African Americans seeking to build lives for their families following the Civil War. W.E.B. Du Bois often spoke of cooperative economics in his work, and recognized the Underground Railroad as a co-op in which abolitionists shared resources to help enslaved Africans escape. Vigilance committees within the Underground Railroad provided food, clothing and shelter, and raised revenue so these resources could be readily available for runaways. Additional cooperatives were later established to help build wealth within Black communities, such as the Freedom Quilting Bee in Alberta, Alabama, which helped African American women earn money collectively, enabling its members to purchase land and a factory. Ownership of their labor allowed some of the women to make enough money to purchase their freedom from sharecropping.

Contrary to popular narratives, co-ops are as American as apple pie, and they have a long history in the United States.

Today, co-ops are defined as legal entities created and operated with the intention of benefiting their members. There are multiple cooperatives structures which are commonly used today: consumer co-ops, worker owned co-ops, employee owned businesses, and real estate co-ops.

REI is a well know consumer co-op, where people come together to buy products at better prices. Worker-owned coops are increasing, but still rare in the U.S.; according to some sources there are just over 300.

Alabama Freedom Quilting Bee, Encyclopedia of Alabama

Employee Stock Option Plans (ESOP) are slightly different than co-ops—cooperative structures grant each member or worker-owner an equal share of the business AND an equal vote in decision-making, regardless of pay or seniority. In the case of an ESOP employees are granted the option of acquiring company stock, usually at a discounted prize. However, the objective of an ESOP is usually to reward employees for the growth and profitability of the business, not to create a distrusted ownership of the company. Kelly-Moore Paint is one of the most widely-recognized companies with an employee stock ownership program.

Real estate co-ops facilitate the ownership of housing by members, making property ownership more affordable. For example, the NYC Real Estate Investment Cooperative (NYC REIC) consists of more than 400 members who “are pooling their money and power to secure space for community, small business, and cultural use” in New York City. In California, the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative was born out of a collaboration between the People of Color Sustainable Housing Network and the Sustainable Economies Law Center. The East Bay Real Estate Cooperative is “designed to remove land from the speculative market, create permanently affordable housing and commercial space…and assert democratic control into the development process in the face of mass displacement in the Bay Area,” says Chris Tittle, Director of Organizational Resilience at the Law Center.

Some of the most successful co-ops in the U.S are financial co-ops, also known as credit unions, and they can provide a great alternative to traditional big banks. Credit unions are not-for-profit institutions that either invest profits back into the organization or distribute profits among members as dividends in the form of earned interest. Technically, credit unions are owned by their account holders, known as members. As not-for-profit institutions, credit unions pay no state or federal taxes, meaning they can charge lower interest rates than banks for most financial services. Today, more than 100 million Americans are members of credit unions in the U.S.

It’s time for a new economic system—one that balances the needs of all its stakeholders.

Co-ops offer great hope for addressing one of the biggest problems of our current economic system: the concentration of wealth among a shrinking number of investors in big corporations and banks. From 1979 to 2007, “paycheck income of the top 1 percent of US earners increased by over 256 percent.” During the same period of time, “the bottom 90 percent of earners saw little increases to their average income, with a dismal 21 percent increase from 1979 to 2015.

Stagnant wages in the U.S. are just one of many factors that have made home ownership a lofty goal for countless working-class families. Homeownership remains a significant driver of wealth in the United States, which is why many housing rights advocates are looking at collective ownership models that make home ownership a possibility for people who have historically been excluded from the housing market. In general, co-ops offer an opportunity for communities to reimagine what ownership looks like with a lense towards equity.

Cooperatives represent a solution that can help increase ownership within untapped communities, build generational wealth, and foster economically resilient neighborhoods. A robust and innovative co-op movement is one of the keys to an equitable economic system that abandons models which value profits over people and the planet. It’s time for a new economic system—one that balances the needs of all its stakeholders, including workers, community, the environment, and even investors.

This blog post reflects the author’s personal views and opinions, and does not represent the views and opinions of Beneficial State Bank and/or Beneficial State Foundation.