Like almost all reflective tech watchers I know, I worry about what social media is doing to our society. Algorithm-driven polarization, disinformation, hate speech, etc. – all have been exacerbated by our existing social media landscape. So, of course, I’m interested in any efforts to address these issues.
Recently at the Emtech MIT conference featured Frank McCourt – once a prominent Boston resident, then LA Dodgers owner, now real estate developer, owner of a French soccer team, and champion of a new Internet. This last goal is enshrined in Project Freedomwhich the website says is “a visionary initiative to transform how the internet works, who owns and controls personal data, and who benefits from the digital economy.” Clearly no shortage of ambition there.
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 web, has tried to reinvent it for some of the same reasons that motivate McCourt. He has both a product (Firm) and a company (Hack) to promote a new decentralized web with a pod-driven approach to data ownership and privacy. I think it’s progressing slowly, but it’s kind of hard to say. Twitter announced the development of an open-source social networking protocol called Blue sky in 2019, and it is still in a research phase. Thankfully, it’s now independent of Twitter, but given that many of its original proponents are no longer with Twitter, it’s probably in jeopardy. McCourt didn’t go into details about how Project Liberty compares to Solid and Bluesky, but he did say he wanted to collaborate with other organizations that are similarly inclined.
How to change the online world
I had previously talked to Braxton Woodham, the head of Unfinished labs, the technology development arm of Project Liberty. I then got the feeling that Project Liberty was just a technical exercise. Technology matters, of course, and Woodham and his colleagues have developed an open-source protocol called “Decentralized social networking protocol(DSNP) which represents a person’s social graph and is managed by each individual. There is also a blockchain component that seems to rule identity management. That all seems appealing, but I’m not technically qualified to determine how well it works. However, I felt at the time that better technology alone was not enough to encourage the world to move to a new social internet.
But at MIT, McCourt said the technology, while the primary focus at the start of the initiative, is just one part of Project Liberty. There are three other components:
The primary focus of the governance component is the McCourt Institute, which sponsors research and public discussion with founders Georgetown University (McCourt’s alma mater, where he previously donated to establish the McCourt School of Public Policy) and Sciences Po in Paris, a university with a political science focus. The politics and policy component is aimed at regulators, trying to show them that there is an alternative to the current system of big tech companies owning the social graph and the personal information contained therein. Undoubtedly, any new regulation in this area will be the first in Europe.
The “movement” piece is perhaps the least well-defined, but McCourt said it aims to “engage people” and help them understand the implications of these issues for a well-functioning society. He didn’t mention it at MIT, but presumably the “Unfinished life”, an event to be held at The Shed in New York in September falls into the “movement” category. It was described as “a provocative and completely immersive environment that realizes a society where people have power and control over their personal data.”
I also worried that Project Liberty was an all-or-nothing approach to changing the global internet, but when I spoke to McCourt for a few minutes after his speech, he said that wasn’t the case. The technology can be used by individual companies or organizations, he quoted adoption by means of Me We, a privacy-focused social network with 20 million members. Obviously, more companies or networks need to adopt Project Liberty’s technology for it to succeed, but at least it can happen piecemeal.
However, what I think Project Liberty needs to succeed is for a really popular social network to adopt 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 takes both skill and luck, but I’d love to see a decentralized private data social network grow so quickly based on one application and show what another internet could be.