Let people own the tech companies they help build

There is a technological eternity, in 2016 and 2017, one of us participated in the organization of a shareholder countryside on Twitter, asking the platform to explore strategies to make its users co-owners of the company. Twitter was then receiving acquisition offers from Disney and Salesforce. To those of us in the countryside, it seemed untrue that a platform of such personal and political importance, attracting such love-hate devotion from its users, was in reality just a commodity to be bought and for sale. Technical press covered our campaign, but above all rejected it as chimerical. We pitched our proposal at Twitter’s annual meeting and it won just a few percentage points of the shareholder vote.

Yet soon after, in 2018, Uber and Airbnb write letters to the Securities and Exchange Commission proposing what looked suspiciously like what we asked of Twitter: to be allowed to grant equity to their users, respectively their drivers and their hosts. Whether they are (or should be) considered by law as employees, contractors or customers, they are the people the platforms rely on, and who in turn rely on the platforms. Somehow, what seemed unbelievably utopian in 2017 was now the corporate strategy of the biggest concert platforms. Without much fanfare, user ownership was slowly emerging as an industry trend.

The Airbnb letter made the rationale clear: “Greater alignment of incentives between sharing economy companies and participants would benefit both.” The platforms might get more loyalty from users who might otherwise come and go on a whim. Stock rewards, on the other hand, could reduce users in the benefits of company ownership, which are typically reserved for elite employees or people who already have wealth to invest.

We are not inclined to trust those companies which have long had ambivalent relations with the public good. But it is true that more widespread ownership in the platform economy could be a game-changer. In Accomplishment, Alec MacGillis’ new book on how Amazon reshaped America, it cites former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich’s observation that if Amazon was owned by its employees, like Sears was. In the old days, an average warehouse worker in 2020 could have held over $ 400,000 in inventory.

Capital grants can also include rights to control company strategy. For social media platforms, for example, user owners could demand limits on the use of their personal data, more control over what appears in their feeds, and a voice in shaping moderation policies. content. Think of Facebook’s supervisory board, but with members elected by users and more meaningful power.

The SEC did not immediately comply with Airbnb and Uber’s request to issue equity capital to users, so each company made workarounds. Uber cash grants issued to loyal drivers, with a stock option in its 2019 public offering. Airbnb, whose pandemic refunds have hurt many hosts, ad two forms of shadow ownership before going public in 2020: a corporate stock “foundation” for payments to hosts and a host advisory board to inform corporate decisions. It seems the companies were serious. And the SEC seems to be coming; at the end of last year, the commission offers allowing concert companies to pay up to 15 percent of compensation in equity.

As the giant platforms crafted their plans to share capital, we’re investigating and supporting a parallel movement: a new wave of start-ups trying to include co-ownership in their plans from the get-go. Some are “platform co-ops” like New York City’s new carpooling service, the Cooperative of drivers, and Parents, a consumer cooperative that features brands owned by blacks. Instead of the spectacular returns that budding “unicorn” companies promise wealthy investors, these “zebra“Startups prioritize benefits for marginalized communities. Others, like the software developer gigs platform Gitcoin, use blockchain technology to share ownership through crypto tokens rather than old-fashioned stocks.

Tech investors normally expect startups to make one of two types of “exits,” IPO or acquisition. What if platform companies could instead work towards a possible “exit to the community”? What if co-ownership is what long-term users expect? Rather than the teeming chaos of the The craze for GameStop, this approach could promote real loyalty, responsibility and shared wealth.

In one New article for the Georgetown Law Technology Review, we have detailed several avenues to know how “exit to the community“Could work. These strategies build on long-standing examples, from the electric co-ops that power much of rural America to the employee share ownership plan that serves about 14 million American workers today. We explore also the new possibilities offered by decentralized social media and blockchain technology.

A few pioneers have already achieved this. A few years ago, rural Colorado-based tech news website Hacker Noon used an “equity crowdfunding” campaign (in which Nathan was involved) to quit Medium.com and start their own. own platform thanks to the investments of its users. Groupmuse, a chamber music concert platform, became the property of employees and move too towards the property of the musician.

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