We are connected - taking control of our communication
December 16, 2017
We are hyper-connected. We share (or don't share) our secrets, desires, heartbreaks, whereabouts, spending habits, social links, number of steps walked each day with our friends, social networks or the public as we see fit. But no matter how private or not we want that information to be, we pay profit-driven giant corporations for the amount of data we use (and which they store and analyse on an ongoing basis) and we pay other profit-driven giant corporations for access to the physical infrastructure they install, own and maintain. All our communications traffic is handled by a very small number of companies globally.
And to achieve their only goal (maximum profit), these companies make money out of us in a variety of ways:
- they sell our data to people/agencies who want to make money out of us
- they sell our data to people/agencies who want to surveil and control us
- they charge us hugely inflated prices to access the infrastructure of the internet, which has become a basic need in many parts of the world and over which they have a monopoly
- they manipulate our desire to access and share information, so that they can make more money out of us in the first three ways.
When people talk about 'net neutrality' this is what I think is the logical conclusion: having the possibility for people to use the internet as a neutral tool without every interaction being at someone else's discretion and in someone else's interest. Ok, well, that's what I think net neutrality should actually mean, but it's not usually presented that way. Here is some other randomly googled info about net neutrality, here and here.
(By the way, here's a great TEDtalk by Zeynep Tufekci on another terrifying aspect: a really clear demonstration of how advertising algorithms are influencing our perceptions, beliefs and behaviours - not consciously or deliberately, i mean, they're algorithms for goodness' sake)
But there are small pockets of resistance: groups fighting back with secure/anonymised software, teams building decentralised infrastructure, individuals and communities learning and using their collective buying power to control their own data usage - taking control of the communications systems and putting it into the hands of coops and communities.
We wanted to share information and understand how Som Conexió works, learning each other's practices and visions and making links for possible future collaboration. I also brought good wishes from Pat Moral, a Barcelona native now working for The Phone Coop in the UK, who had previously been in touch and seemed keen to know how to help.
Eticom/som conexió is a young consumer coop, which provides a similar service to the UK's Phone Coop. They've been going since Mercè took a little table to the 2013 Catalunya Social & Solidarity Economy Fair saying 'I'm going to set up a phone & internet services coop, who wants to join me?'
She was inspired through her membership of Som Energia (you guessed it, a consumer coop for energy), wanting community sovereignty over the communications which maintain society – both personal relationships and economic activity.
For the previous year or two, she’d been frustrated by her lack of tech knowledge, which blocked her from joining Guifi.net – it seems therefore an amazing leap for her to decide that she’d find it easier to set up a whole new coop in a sector she knew nothing about. But it is working.
After tabling at the 2013 Fair and tweeting like mad, she quickly found eticom, a tiny group with the same aims who’d started around the same time. They joined forces and were up to 180 members by the time of their first assembly/members' meeting in January 2014.
They haven't borrowed any money at all to set up - setting the members’ share at €100 gave them initial working capital. Mercè herself didn’t take wages for the first 18 months, surviving on savings, a low-paid part-time job and her partner’s support, while bringing up kids at the same time. Not an uncommon story, but super-impressive nonetheless.
I asked whether she'd considered meeting some of her own needs through the Cooperativa Integral Catalana (ie, using social money due to a lack of Euros). She had wanted to join the CIC and be able to transact in ‘ECOS’, but didn’t have the time to contribute to that coop as well, or maintain the relationship with CIC.
This has been an ongoing problem for Radical Routes, which relies on people already in one or more coops and active in other projects to find additional time to contribute to RR's functioning. But it's even more important for social currency projects which are thinking about shifting the economy away from capitalism - they need to consider this issue of supporting nascent projects in strategic sectors to be able to use the currency without having to find additional participation time. Perhaps some sort of participation waiver given in special cases.
What does eticom/som conexió offer?
Initially they only offered mobile contracts, but quickly added ADSL (landlines/internet) and launched their fibre-optic broadband service in August 2017. They buy data and installation/maintenance services from multiple suppliers and their negotiating power comes from having around 2500 members. The deal they offer isn’t cheaper, although they expect that soon coop members will get a better fault response service from the suplliers than direct customers do, because of the coop’s collective buying power.
Crucially, they rely on having a highly politicised and supportive membership. Although there are now 8 people employed, there only two are available to deal with customer services, so the coop members need to be willing to put up with those limitations.
They share a common strategy with Guifi.net of creating community and co-operatively-owned internet networks – they plan to work together in the future, deploying their own infrastructure, starting in places where the local community wants it.
Wider co-operative movement support
To me it seemed like all involved were working their socks off to make this happen. When we discussed support from the wider coop movement, Mercè acknowledged the contact made a while back by The Phone Coop in the UK and their offer to host her on a study visit. But at the time the offer was made, the group didn’t know enough about the industry to know what questions to ask. Additionally there’s little chance of her or others finding the time to go to the UK.
It seems to me that The Phone Coop could think about sending a couple of people to Barcelona, one techie & one business person, which would enable the visitors to see the coop in action and the eticom/som conexió team all to learn directly from them. And, this UK cooperator highly recommends visits to Barcelona for all round inspiration :-)