You sometimes hear high-profile executives talking about the problems our technology poses to our democracy, but how many of them are actually trying to do something about it?
Frank McCourt does.
McCourt, a 69-year-old billionaire real estate developer and sports team owner, says he now devotes 90% of his time to strengthening our political system and society by focusing on the Internet’s shortcomings through a network of companies and projects. Facebook reporter Frances Haugen collaborates with Georgetown University and various European NGOs.
Some quick notes on McCourt before we get into his search.
You may have heard of Frank McCourt (not the late author of Angela’s Ashes) during his up-and-down tenure (2004-2012) as owner of the LA Dodgers. An entire book or movie will be made about that time, though McCourt may not be too keen on producing either.
McCourt now owns one of the most famous clubs in the country, the French football team Olympique de Marseille. (I recently participated in a game, which I will return to.)
Sports aside, the focus is mostly on McCourt’s Internet crusade, which seems a far cry from his multi-generational Boston real estate business.
Or is it?
‘What are you going to do about it?’
McCourt remembers sitting around a table as one of seven brothers discussing the topics of the day. “I could hear my mother’s voice: “It’s great. You guys got the problem. Now what are you going to do about it?’” McCourt recalls. It was like that at the time.
The problem now, the numbers say, is “the rapid erosion of our democracy and our political system,” McCourt says. “It’s obviously something growing up in Boston, I never thought I’d be talking to you about the possibility of democracy surviving in the United States. I am seriously worried. I want our small family business to continue for another five generations. I’m sure others feel the same way about what’s important to them and are deeply concerned about the future of the country and its ability to continue the greatest democratic experiment of all time.”
Well, to quote mom: “Now what are you going to do about it?”
For starters, McCourt has created a concentric group of companies and is trying to solve the problem. He started three years ago when he “wanted to find out what was going on” with an organization called Half-Life, “working to strengthen our civic life in the digital age.”
“It started out intentionally vague and pretty open,” McCourt said. “We called our first project ‘unfinished questions’ and collected questions from people all over the world, asking them a question that they are currently dying to get answered or that has a serious concern.
“It was inevitable that technology would be on people’s minds,” he says. “The image that stuck with me was a group of young high school kids from the Bronx marching on Washington Square in Manhattan and putting up a giant sign that said, ‘Is technology our undoing?’ It really focused our attention on the relationship between technology and democracy.”
In addition, says McCourt, “there is a great ambition to reimagine the future of unfinished government, technology, and culture, to create a thriving multiracial democracy, and to regulate the economy. It’s a big, big transition line.”
McCourt then created Project Liberty to work on the specific relationship between technology and democracy. This week, Martina Larkin joined Project Liberty to become CEO. Larkin, formerly of the World Economic Forum, is based out of London and its executive director out of Paris, giving the project a strong European and globalist flavor.
What exactly is Project Liberty?
Paradoxically, McCourt says this is not a technological project. “What I mean by this is that technology is just a tool, like a hammer. Take that hammer and you can go out and build a house. Or you can take that hammer and go out and kill someone. “Social media is actually a hammer that kills people, not a hammer that builds houses.”
“Project Liberty is a three-track project,” McCourt continues. “Tech track with DSNP [or decentralized social networking protocol, more on that below], but it also has a way of governing and a way of moving. It’s like a Venn diagram where the three circles that distinguish the Freedom Project intersect. I don’t think we can solve the erosion of democracy if we leave it to the technologists. We need social scientists, management experts and people who can recall history. We also need to involve civil society, citizens who are affected by this technology.”
DSNPs are essentially a protocol that uses blockchain technology to allow individuals to control their own data.
“So we’re redesigning the way the internet works, it’s not going to be for platforms, it’s going to be for people,” McCourt elaborates. “Fundamentally, we need to give people ownership and control over their data and not allow our data to be siphoned off by a few big platforms. They monetize and use our data in ways we never wanted. Data is now even being weaponized where we have pushed society to behave in certain ways. It’s very, very unhealthy.”
Fast Company notes that Twitter’s project bluesky, launched by the company’s former CEO Jack Dorsey, has similar decentralized features. McCourt told Kara Swisher in an October interview at Georgetown University — both Swisher and McCourt are Hoyas, and McCourt has given about $200 million to the school — that McCourt sent a letter to Musk, Dorsey and the board when he heard Musk was buying Twitter. saying: “If you’re serious about Twitter being a real, genuine, public space that’s digital, and if you need a protocol to ensure that, then this is the protocol.”
Swisher asked, but McCourt heard no response. “No,” he said. “Disappointing but not surprising.”
What, according to McCourt, is the main problem with the technology?
“Architecture,” he says. “When you move fast and screw things up, you screw up really important things like democracy. There are no guardrails, no values built into the technology to make sure it works as intended. If you optimize for anger, you get anger. If you optimize for democracy, you get democracy.”
I asked McCourt about Francis Haugen. “I think he did a great public service by pointing out the problems with the current technology architecture,” he said. “We are collaborating with Frances. His “Debt of Care” initiative is a great project in this respect.
Before I spoke with McCourt, I told a European colleague that he owned Olympique de Marseille. My coworkers’ eyes lit up. “These fans are really there,” he said. This intrigued me and I happened to be in that part of the world last month so I decided to see what he had to say.
I’ve been to all kinds of NFL, NBA and college football games, but the OM game is wilder than any of them. 63,000 rabid fans chanted non-stop for 90 minutes, jumped up and down, and set off huge fireworks (which looked like explosives) both inside and outside the stadium that had me knocking my socks off. My ears were ringing for days. It was one of the craziest expressions of both individualism and tribalism that I have ever witnessed.
Is there a connection between McCourt’s sports teams and web efforts? He thinks so. In April 2021, McCourt published an article in the French newspaper Le Monde equating the recently defunct European Football Super League with the hegemony of the Silicon Valley giants.
“The European Super League posed an existential threat to football, but the consolidation of the tech industry poses an existential threat to humanity. Left unchecked, it will erode our economy and eat away at our democracy. We must oppose this centralization and support a global movement to ensure that wealth and power are not confined to an influential elite. “If we want to create a fairer and more just society, we need to give the voice of all, not just a few.”
You might dismiss McCourt’s decentralized democratic vision as fanciful or naïve. But it seems better to work on that than to suggest the opposite, which you might argue Silicon Valley is doing.
It’s also better than doing nothing.
This article appeared in the Saturday, December 10 edition of Morning Brief. Get the Morning Digest delivered directly to your inbox every Monday through Friday at 6:30am. Subscribe
Follow Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Server on Twitter: @server