Transforming The Internet With Project Liberty

Like almost all the reflective tech watchers I know, I am worried about what social media is doing to our society. Algorithm-driven polarization, misinformation, hate speech, etc.—all have been exacerbated by our existing social media landscape. So I am of course interested in any attempts to address these issues.

Recently at the Emtech MIT conference, one of the speakers was Frank McCourt—once a prominent Bostonian, then the LA Dodgers owner, now real estate developer, French soccer team owner, and champion of a new Internet. The latter objective is embodied in Project Liberty, the website for which 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 no shortage of ambition there.

This isn’t the first attempt to redo the Internet, and McCourt isn’t the first to think it is broken. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, has been trying to reinvent it for some of the same reasons that motivate McCourt. He’s developed both a product (Solid) and a company (Inrupt) to advance a new decentralized web with a pod-driven approach to data ownership and privacy. I think it’s making slow progress, but it’s a little hard to tell. Twitter announced the development of an open-source social network protocol called Bluesky in 2019, and it’s still in a research phase. Fortunately it is now independent of Twitter, but given that many of its original proponents are no longer employed at Twitter, it’s probably imperiled. McCourt didn’t go into any detail about how Project Liberty relates to Solid and Bluesky, but he did say that he wanted to work with other organizations that are similarly inclined.

How to Change the Online World

I had previously chatted with Braxton Woodham, the head of Unfinished Labs, Project Liberty’s technology development arm. At that time I got the feeling that Project Liberty was only a technical exercise. Technology is important, of course, and Woodham and his colleagues have developed an open-source protocol called “Decentralized Social Networking Protocol” (DSNP) that represents a person’s social graph and is controlled by each individual. There’s also a blockchain component that seems to control identity management. That all seems appealing, but I’m not technically qualified to determine how well it works. I did feel at the time, however, that a better technology alone wasn’t enough to encourage the world to move to a new social Internet.

But at MIT McCourt said that the technology, while the primary focus at the beginning of the initiative, is only one part of Project Liberty. There are three other components:

  • Governance
  • Policy
  • Movement

The primary focus of the governance component is the McCourt Institute, which sponsors research and public discussion with founding partners 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 focus on political science. The politics and policy component is focused on regulators, attempting to demonstrate to them that there is an alternative to the current system of large tech companies owning the social graph and the personal information within it. No doubt any new regulation in this regard will happen first in Europe.

The “movement” piece is perhaps the least well-defined, but McCourt said that it’s focused on “getting people involved” 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,” an event held in September at The Shed in New York, falls into the “movement” category. It was described as “a provocative and fully immersive environment that actualizes a society where people hold the 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 his talk for a few minutes, he said that wasn’t the case. The technology can be employed by individual companies or organizations, and he cited adoption by MeWe, a privacy-oriented social network with 20 million members. Obviously, more companies or networks will need to adopt Project Liberty’s technology if it is to succeed, but at least it can happen piece-by-piece.

What I think Project Liberty will need to succeed, however, is for a really popular social network to adopt its technology. Imagine if TikTok, for example, had been built with DSNP. It went 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, private data social network grow that quickly on the back of one application and demonstrate what a different Internet could be.

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