The lesson from the Facebook era may be that social networking is too central to modern life to be monopolized by one very profit-driven company. Maybe social networks are something more like bridges or water supplies, something best controlled by the public.
That’s the thinking of Frank McCourt, the real estate billionaire and former L.A. Dodgers owner who has now turned his attention—and his wallet—to jumpstarting the evolution of the internet beyond the excesses and errors of Web 2.0.
“If you look at the way the internet developed with Web 2.0, you’ve got these massive data structures that are built by all of us behind proprietary enclosures: the global search index at Google, the global product index at Amazon, the global social graph at Facebook,” McCourt says, Zooming in from the back of a car cruising through the streets of New York City. “The thought is these large data structures created by the public should be owned by no one; they should be public.”
To get things going, McCourt proposes building a new “civic architecture” using the blockchain as its foundational technology (a “gift to humanity,” he calls it). Data about social interactions—basically everything we do within digital communities—would live on the blockchain and be controlled by individuals instead of internet companies, McCourt says. Blockchain uses an immutable ledger spread across a large network of computers to track transactions, and is the foundational technology that underpins Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.
The first building block of this new architecture is something called the Decentralized Social Networking Protocol (DSNP), which developers can use to build social apps and services. Instead of creating value by hoarding personal data, social apps would compete based on the value of the service they provide users. People could allow certain apps to access their personal information, but they could revoke that privilege at any time and move to another app.
The social protocol is just the start, McCourt says. “We’re trying to provide a core focal point for this next generation of the web that’s public, that’s a fragmented civic infrastructure.” There may be other protocols built for other aspects of digital life.
McCourt’s social protocol is reminiscent of a project ongoing at Twitter, the only major social network to move toward developing an alternative, distributed model. The company’s CEO Jack Dorsey launched an internal working group called “bluesky” to develop a new social networking protocol and further explore the possibilities of decentralized social networking. In January, Dorsey tweeted: “The reason I have so much passion for Bitcoin is largely because of the model it demonstrates: a foundational internet technology that is not controlled or influenced by any single individual or entity. This is what the internet wants to be, and over time, more of it will be.” In August, Twitter tapped a crypto developer named Jay Graber to lead the initiative.
McCourt’s Decentralized Social Networking Protocol is just the technical leg of his three-part vision, which is known collectively as Project Liberty. He’s also assembled and funded a “governance” organization along with partners Georgetown University and Sciences Po in Paris called the McCourt Institute, which will develop an ethical framework for moderating content. McCourt has plowed $75 million into the McCourt Institute; he donated $100 million to establish the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown, then doubled down with the same amount in March. Finally, a “movement” leg will focus on convincing people to migrate to this more civic-minded set of applications.
McCourt says all three legs are crucial. “A tech solution without a movement and without mass migration, I don’t think is going to be a game changer—the incumbents are just too big and powerful,” he tells me. “And without the values embedded in the ethical issues . . . I think we run the risk of repeating errors in the past.”
Part of the movement he’s trying to build is a yearly conference in New York City called “Unfinished,” where McCourt’s various organizations and partners—including the Aspen Institute and the Ford Foundation—get together to talk about all aspects of Project Liberty. Fifty to 60 developers will talk about the first projects to be built using the DSNP. The two-day event starts today.
The conference happens as Facebook is embroiled anew in controversy following a damning Wall Street Journal series that revealed how Facebook has done little to heed the warnings of its own researchers when it comes to misinformation, the mental health of its users, and more.
Meanwhile, in Washington, regulators on both sides of the aisle are increasingly hungry to rein in Big Tech. The Senate antitrust subcommittee chaired by Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) continues to hold hearings and introduce bills to overhaul antitrust laws, seeking to retool and re-empower the Federal Trade Commission to once again bring cases against Big Tech monopolists. The FTC, led by antitrust firebrand Lina Khan, already has an active antitrust case against Facebook, and is investigating Amazon’s marketplace. The Justice Department has an antitrust case against Google, and three separate groups of states have filed lawsuits against the advertising giant for anticompetitive practices.
McCourt, however, is doubtful that regulation alone can bring about a more just internet.
“Project Liberty is a campaign with an idea to solve this problem that doesn’t rely on controlling and stifling innovation,” he says. “We think tech is a big part of the problem, but we believe totally that tech needs to be part of the solution.”
If the name of McCourt’s movement, Project Liberty, sounds a bit grand, there’s a reason.
“We use the example of the founding of this country; this country was founded by people migrating from another country,” McCourt says. “They didn’t like how things were going [in England]. It was a monarchy, it was a feudal system, and they literally got on boats and migrated.”
“We’re talking about a migration from another feudal system to a new community that can be built with democratic values, not this kind of strange process where people’s data is being literally stolen from them and used in ways that are really, really not constructive for society.”