Like almost every thoughtful tech watcher I know, I worry about what social media is doing to our society. Algorithm-driven polarization, misinformation, hate speech, etc.—all of this has been exacerbated by our existing social media landscape. So I’m naturally interested in any attempts to address these issues.
At Emtech’s MIT conference recently, one of the speakers was Frank McCourt—once a Bostonian, then the owner of the LA Dodgers, now a real estate developer, owner of a French soccer team, and advocate of a new Internet. The latter goal is embodied in Project Liberty, whose website says it is “a visionary initiative to change how the internet works, who owns and controls personal data, and who benefits from the digital economy.” Ambition is lacking there clearly not.
This isn’t the first attempt to remake the Internet, and McCourt isn’t the first to think it’s broken. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Internet, tried to reinvent it for some of the same reasons that motivate McCourt. He has built both a product (Solid) and a company (Inrupt) to power a new decentralized web with a pod-driven approach to data ownership and privacy. I think it’s making slow progress, but it’s a little hard to tell. Twitter announced in 2019 the development of an open-source social networking protocol called Bluesky, which is still in the research phase. Thankfully, it’s now independent of Twitter, but since many of its original proponents are no longer employed by Twitter, it’s likely at risk. McCourt didn’t elaborate on how Project Liberty relates to Solid and Bluesky, but he said he would like to work with other organizations that are similarly inclined.
How to change the online world
I previously spoke to Braxton Woodham, head of Unfinished Labs, Project Liberty’s technology development arm. At the time, I felt Project Liberty was just a technical exercise. Technology is important, of course, and Woodham and his colleagues have developed an open-source protocol called the Decentralized Social Networking Protocol (DSNP) that represents a person’s social graph and is controlled by each individual. There is also a blockchain component that seems to control identity management. This all seems tempting, but I’m not technically qualified to determine how well it works. At the time, however, I felt that better technology alone wasn’t enough to push the world to move to a new social internet.
But at MIT, McCourt said that while the technology was at the forefront of the initiative’s inception, it was only part of Project Liberty. There are three other components:
The main focus of the governance component is the McCourt Institute, which conducts research and public discussions with founding partners Georgetown University (McCourt’s alma mater, where he previously donated to found the McCourt School of Public Policy) and Sciences Po in Paris, a university , promotes a focus on political science. The policy and policy component focuses on regulators and tries to demonstrate to them that there is an alternative to the current system of big tech companies owning the social chart and the personal information it contains. No doubt any new regulation in this regard will come first in Europe.
The “movement” piece is perhaps the least well-defined, but McCourt said it focuses on “engaging people” and helping them understand the implications of these issues for a well-functioning society. He didn’t mention it at MIT, but presumably Unfinished Live, an event held at The Shed in New York in September, falls into the movement category. It has been described as “a provocative and fully immersive environment that embodies a society where people have power and control over their personal information”.
I was also concerned that Project Liberty was an “all or nothing” approach to transforming the global internet, but when I spoke with McCourt for a few minutes after his presentation, he said that wasn’t the case. The technology can be used by individual companies or organizations, and he cites its acquisition by MeWe, a privacy-focused social network with 20 million members. Obviously more companies or networks will need to adopt Project Liberty’s technology if it is to be successful, but at least it can be done piecemeal.
However, I think Project Liberty must be successful if a really popular social network adopts its technology. Imagine if TikTok was built with DSNP, for example. It went from zero users in 2016 to over a billion in 2021, and the app has been downloaded over 3 billion times. It will take both skill and luck, but I’d really like to see a decentralized, private, application-based social data network grow so quickly and show what another internet could be.