by Nathan Schneider
January 14, 2017
Many internet users currently rely on highly centralized, corporate-controlled cloud tools for daily needs such as email, calendars, contact management, file-sharing, collaborative editing, social media, and more. These tools, provided (in many cases for “free”) through companies like Google, Dropbox, Facebook, Yahoo, and others, rest atop business models based on mining and surveillance of users’ personal data. They’re highly monopolistic and by necessity impersonal toward their users. Another way is possible, but it requires creating a business model designed to reach users in an accessible, affordable, trustworthy manner. Fortunately, we are in a position to start creating that now, with negligible startup cost.
There is currently a wide variety of open-source, community-built, self-hostable cloud tools available, which replicate or improve on the offerings of the dominant corporate cloud products. Using them, however, requires skill and effort in system administration and server maintenance that is rightly unappealing to most internet denizens. However, these tools are well suited to the formation of a healthier kind of cloud, one made up of small-ish, trusted organizations that provide these open cloud services to their members and interoperate with each other.
IoOCloud (pronounced “yo-cloud”?!) is a proposal to create one such organization, demonstrating the viability of an alternative system of clouds built on community-built software and cooperative ownership. It follows in the footsteps of organizations such as Framasoft, May First, and Riseup, which have long provided open tools to activists and geeks using nonprofit and membership models, as well as proposed software-purchasing cooperatives. IoOCloud is poised to bring those strategies to a wider public and encourage further replication of its model—a distributed cloud system designed around trust, control, and quality service rather than monopoly and surveillance behind the veneer of convenience.
IoOCloud is a further iteration of the Internet of Ownership project, which has thus far been a resource-base for the platform cooperativism movement, including a directory of the movement’s projects and supporters around the world, as well as a library of texts and a blog. This next step is intended to be both a demonstration of the viability of platform cooperativism for cloud services and a service, in and of itself, to the platform co-op community and beyond.
Based as it is on much already-existing software, IoOCloud is a project designed to be functional and self-financing, as much as possible, from the start. Through cooperative membership, it can self-fund development to meet users’ needs and contribute back to broader networks.
First, likely with the aid of a single, part-time administrator and a basic, rented server infrastrcture, IoOCloud can deploy a few basic self-hosted services and begin attracting members. For a sliding-scale membership contribution of perhaps $10-$100 per year, IoOCloud could offer access to a modest suite of tools such as ownCloud file-sharing and calendaring, the read-it-later app Wallabag, a news reader like TinyTinyRSS, email accounts via IMAP or webmail, and the various apps available through the Sandstorm platform. Through an open ticketing system, members could easily and efficiently communicate with the administrator. A Loomio subscription could be purchased to facilitate discussion and decision-making among members about the future of the co-op, and payments could be handled through Gratipay.
While each of these tools is available for download at no cost, their deployment and maintenance is best performed by a skilled administrator. Therefore, for an affordable fee, members would have access to a suite of alternatives to the corporate clouds, free of surveillance and on the basis of a transparent business model.
According to the co-op’s bylaws, members could decide how rapidly to proceed with investing their dues toward advancing the platform.
The next stage might be to move beyond mere administration and toward integration (as well as expansion) of these services. Members could invest in software development and user-experience design so as to better connect their services, such as through a single login and more consistent interfaces, where possible. In this way, what was first a hodge-podge of tools would become a more inviting suite with ease-of-use and accessibility comparable to the corporate alternatives. This requires further expense, but it would also invite an expanded membership base.
IoOCloud is not meant to stand alone but to support the development of an ecosystem that benefits its members and the internet beyond. First, the software that the project creates could be shared under a Peer Production License, so that other cooperatives and nonprofits can replicate the model themselves. Many existing open cloud tools—e.g., ownCloud and GNUSocial—are designed to be federated across cooperating servers, so having others replicate the IoOCloud model elsewhere makes IoOCloud itself more useful through network effects. IoOCloud and its siblings could then see fit to federate, forming an umbrella organization to coordinate development of shared resources. They might also choose to join with other cooperative projects such as PLANET and FairCoop, so as to participate in the opportunities for financing, commerce, and communication that those projects offer.
Finally, it is in the interest of IoOCloud’s cooperative to contribute back to the open-source communities from which it draws—funding developer time to help improve its various tools. In this way, the cooperative helps form an economic layer for the open-source movement that’s grounded in user needs and experience. While such contributions are clearly in the interest of IoOCloud members, they also fulfill the cooperative principle of concern for wider communities as well.