Like almost every reflective tech watcher I know, I worry about what social media is doing to our society. Algorithmic polarization, misinformation, hate speech, etc.—all exacerbated by our current social media landscape. So of course I am interested in any attempt to solve these problems.
One of the speakers at the recent Emtech MIT conference was Frank McCourt – once a famous Bostonian, then owner of the LA Dodgers, now a real estate developer, owner of the French soccer team and the new champion of the Internet. The latter goal is embodied in Project Liberty, which the website says is a “visionary initiative to change how the Internet works, who owns and controls personal data, and who benefits from the digital economy.”
This isn’t the first attempt to rebuild the Internet, and McCourt isn’t the first to think it’s broken. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Internet, is trying to reinvent it for some of the same reasons that motivated McCourt. He has developed both a product (Solid) and a company (Inrupt) to develop a new decentralized internet with a pod-driven approach to data ownership and privacy. I think it’s progressing slowly, but it’s a little hard to tell. In 2019, Twitter announced the development of an open-source social networking protocol called Bluesky, which is still under investigation. Fortunately, it’s now independent of Twitter, but given that many of its original supporters no longer work for Twitter, it’s probably in jeopardy. McCourt didn’t go into detail about how Project Liberty is related to Solid and Bluesky, but he said he wants to work with other like-minded organizations.
How to change the online world
I previously spoke with Braxton Woodham, head of Project Liberty’s technology development arm, Unfinished Labs. At the time, I had the feeling that Project Freedom 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), which represents a person’s social graph and is controlled by each individual. There is also a blockchain component that oversees identity management. This all sounds attractive, but I’m not technically qualified to determine how well it works. I felt at the time that better technology alone was not enough to encourage the world to move to the new social web.
But at MIT, McCourt said technology is only one part of Project Liberty, even though it was a major focus at the beginning of the initiative. There are three more components:
The main focus of the governance component is the McCourt Institute, which sponsors research and public debate with founding partners Georgetown University (where McCourt previously donated to establish the McCourt School of Public Policy) and Sciences Po in Paris. focuses on political science. The politics and policy component is aimed at regulators, trying to demonstrate to them an alternative to the current system of big tech companies owning the social graph and the personal data it contains. No doubt any new regulation on this will be in Europe first.
The “movement” piece is perhaps the least well-defined part, but McCourt said it’s focused 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 the “Unfinished Live” event at The Shed in New York in September falls into the “movement” category. It’s described as “a provocative and fully immersive environment that actualizes a society where people have power and control over their personal data.”
I also worried that the Freedom Project was an all-or-nothing approach to changing the global Internet, but when I spoke with McCourt after a few minutes of conversation, he said it wasn’t. The technology could be used by individual companies or organizations, and he cited its adoption by MeWe, a privacy-focused social network with 20 million members. Obviously, more companies or networks will need to adopt Project Liberty’s technology to succeed, but at least it can happen piecemeal.
In my opinion, in order for Project Liberty to succeed, it really needs to adopt the technology of a popular social network. Imagine, for example, that TikTok was built with DSNP. From zero users in 2016 to over one billion in 2021 and the app has been downloaded over 3 billion times. It will take both skill and luck, but I’d love to see a decentralized, private data social network grow rapidly on the back of an app, demonstrating what a different internet can be.