Like almost every thoughtful watcher of technology I know, I worry about what social media is doing to our society. Algorithm-driven polarization, misinformation, hate speech, etc., have all been exacerbated by our current social media landscape. So I am of course interested in any attempt to solve these problems.
Recently, at the Emtech MIT conference, one of the speakers was Frank McCourt, once a prominent Bostonian, then owner of the LA Dodgers, now a real estate developer, owner of the French football team and champion of the new Internet. This latter goal is embodied in Project Liberty, whose website says it “is a visionary initiative to transform how the internet works, who owns and controls personal data, and who benefits from the digital economy.” Clearly, ambition is not lacking.
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, tried to reinvent it for some of the same reasons that motivate McCourt. He has developed both a product (Solid) and a business (Inrupt) to advance a new decentralized web with a pod-centric approach to data ownership and privacy. I think it’s progressing slowly, but it’s kind of hard to tell. Twitter announced the development of an open-source social networking protocol called Bluesky in 2019, and it’s still in the research phase. Fortunately, he is now independent from Twitter, but given that many of his original supporters are no longer employed at Twitter, he is likely in jeopardy. McCourt didn’t go into detail about Project Liberty’s relationship with Solid and Bluesky, but he said he wants to work with other like-minded organizations.
How to change the online world
I had already spoken with Braxton Woodham, the head of Unfinished Labs, the technology development arm of Project Liberty. At that time, I felt 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) 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. It all sounds 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, although the primary focus at the start of the initiative, is only 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 debate with founding partners Georgetown University (McCourt’s alma mater, where he previously donated to establish the School of public policy McCourt) and Sciences Po in Paris, a university with a focus on political science. The political and policy component focuses on regulators, attempting to demonstrate to them that there is an alternative to the current system of big tech companies owning the social graph and the personal information it contains. No doubt any new regulations in this regard will occur 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 to MIT, but presumably the “Unfinished Live,” an event held in September at the Shed in New York, falls into the “movement” category. It has been described as “a provocative and fully immersive environment that actualizes a society where people hold power and control over their personal data”.
I was also concerned that Project Liberty was an “all or nothing” approach to changing the global internet, but when I spoke with McCourt after he spoke for a few minutes, he said that was not the case. The technology can be used by businesses or individual organizations, and he cited 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 be successful, but at least it can be done bit by bit.
What I think Project Liberty will need to be successful is for a very popular social network to adopt its technology. Imagine if TikTok, for example, had been built with DSNP. It has grown 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 would really like to see a decentralized social network of private data grow this quickly through a single application and demonstrate what a different Internet could be.
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