Meet Another Billionaire Working To Rebuild Social Media

TonMany dystopian aspects of social media are well documented: the proliferation of hate speech and misinformation; the propaganda that can incite genocide; the damage it does to body image. This month, after Elon Musk took over Twitter and quickly changed its verification policy, the platform has been riddled with impostors and scams.

But there’s another billionaire who thinks he has the answer to his social media woes: Frank McCourt, chief executive of McCourt Global and former owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Last year, McCourt founded the nonprofit Project Liberty, an audacious effort to fix the internet. On Monday, he announced his intention to step down as chief executive of McCourt Global to devote most of his time to the cause.

“Technology is a very important part of our lives. It should be optimized for people, not for online time, ad dollars or anger,” he told TIME in a recent interview.

McCourt has committed $150 million to the project, which aims to build a new internet layer where users can control and own their personal data. According to McCourt, the driving problem with the current version of the internet is that companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter are incentivized to use personal data to attract advertisers. If individuals own their own data on social platforms, social media platforms will be forced to better serve users, not just their advertising bottom line, he said. As a result, there will be less toxicity, and the Internet may become a veritable meeting place for civic discussion.

This is not some theoretical experiment in the distant future. The Project Liberty team has built a base-layer protocol — a set of rules for routing data on the internet — to which McCourt hopes most social media users will migrate within the next three years.

“When it happens, it happens very quickly,” he said.

So what sets McCourt apart from another billionaire, Musk, who has grand plans to fix social media? While McCourt may be Project LIberty’s main funder and voice, he is not its CEO; nor does he benefit any shareholders in order to make Project Liberty profitable. He emphasized that Project Liberty will require a large-scale joint effort of experts from the fields of technology, policy, governance and social sciences. “There’s no illusion here that anyone can fix these problems,” he said. “There’s going to be a whole bunch of people coming to this problem.”

From real estate to sports to tech

Born into a real estate family empire in Boston, McCourt started his own real estate firm in the ’70s and made a series of deals that enabled him to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2003. Completely successful. Although he bought the team for $430 million and sold it some nine years later for $2 billion, he was accused of financial mismanagement, and the Dodgers were forced to trade under him in 2011 due to a cash crunch. filed for bankruptcy under the leadership of the The company McCourt runs today, McCourt Global, is an evolution of his first firm and now leads investments and projects in sports, media, finance and technology. He will formally hand over the CEO role to Shéhéraza de Semsar-de Boisséson in January and will continue as executive chairman of the company.

Over the past few years, McCourt has turned his attention to social media, which he says has seriously exacerbated many of the world’s problems. “The economy, inflation, abortion, immigration, democracy: if you stay away from all of these issues, it’s social media that drives opinions, opinions and opinions,” he said. “It’s going to be very, very difficult to address these big, important societal issues if we don’t have a coherent conversation about them. Our current use of social media is not designed to optimize truth or a shared set of facts.”

McCourt has pledged $150 million of his own money to the Liberty Initiative, saying that ultimately “billions of dollars” will be needed to bring about lasting change. In an interview, he announced his intention to spend 90 percent of his time on Project Liberty and 10 percent on McCourt Global, not the other way around. “It’s a big shift in my focus, but it’s a testament to how important Project Liberty is to me,” he said.

To help realize his vision, McCourt recruited a select group of tech policy, thought leadership and innovation luminaries. Martina Larkin, a longtime World Economic Forum executive, will become Project Liberty’s first chief executive. Semsar-de Boisséson of the McCourt Institute, which has been leading Project Liberty, will succeed McCourt as Chief Executive Officer of McCourt Global. Constance Bommelaer, former vice president of the Internet Society, will become the new executive director of the McCourt Institute, part of Project Liberty.

How Project Liberty Works

Even with a plan (and a lot of money) to tackle social media’s deep-seated problems, it can be hard to know where to start. The first step, McCourt said, is to take a more holistic approach that doesn’t put engineers directly in charge of social projects. “Last time, we made the mistake of subordinating social scientists, governance experts, and civil society to technology in a certain way,” he said. “People are paying homage to the mantra ‘move fast, break things’ – well, mission accomplished.”

There is a new technology that is the basis of Project Liberty’s efforts: DSNP, an open source protocol similar to the HTTPS protocol that underpins the Internet. The goal of DSNP is to support a shared, decentralized social graph, that is, all connections and interactions in a social network. Users, not networks, will own their data, choose how networks use or not use that data, and they will be able to transfer their identities and online histories from one network to another. The DSNP will use blockchain technology, which McCourt believes is particularly good at confirming identities, hosting decentralized storage and deterring bots.

Project Liberty also hired a variety of policy experts to ponder thorny questions about building guardrails and governance structures in this new online world. One of them is Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who received funding from the Liberty Project for a “duty of care” initiative to study harm and identify best practices for stopping it.

“One of the things that I really appreciate about Frank is that no one else has gone into this space as comprehensively as Omidyar Network,” Haugen said. “There’s actually room on the table for things like child psychologists. If we were building them with more different types of people, we’d be building very different technological systems.”

read more: The inside story of Frances Haugen’s decision to join Facebook

But all these new systems still mean nothing if people don’t use social media platforms built on top of the technology. “Technology will be the easy part,” McCourt said. “Getting people interested and engaged will be a bigger challenge.”

Larkin, Project Liberty’s new chief executive, says adoption can take one of several paths. First, new social media platforms built on the DSNP may be popular with the masses. (MeWe, a decentralized social media platform with about 20 million users, has announced its intention to transition to DSNP within the next two years.) Another possibility is that public sentiment is strongly against an existing strong player like Meta, Forcing them to migrate to Graph – even though their economic incentives are against doing so.

McCourt believes that the dominance of a handful of song-laden social media platforms will give way to “thousand Davids,” which better cater to smaller communities with more specific interests and needs. This has already started, with apps like BeReal and Mastodon gaining huge interest in the past six months.

Larkin boldly predicts that within five years, most social media users will be using a decentralized social media graph; McCourt says three. “We have an ambitious timeline to create real change fairly quickly because I don’t think we have the time,” Larkin said. “Social media is a major driver of the destruction of democracy, so we can’t just sit around and wait.”

challenges to overcome

Technologists who have been working in the decentralized space much longer than McCourt are cautiously optimistic about Project Liberty. “I’m really pleased that Frank McCourt and Project Liberty are bringing a different level of resources to the field than they have in the past. I think this can accomplish a lot,” said Glen Weyl, an economist and researcher at Microsoft Research. “At the same time, there are indeed challenging technical problems that cannot be solved in theory. They must be solved through practical experiments and real user groups-they are just beginning the journey of exploring this field.”

“I think it’s a good idea to start at the protocol level: that’s where a lot of meaningful change happens,” said Divya Siddarth, who is also an economist and a researcher at Microsoft Research. But she also argues, “Personal data ownership doesn’t mean anything: it doesn’t allow for shared data management. I don’t even care about owning my personal social media data.”

There are also questions about Project Liberty’s use of the blockchain, which has yet to be tested at the level of scale that McCourt hopes the protocol will achieve. Public sentiment towards cryptocurrencies is at its lowest point due to the collapse of cryptocurrency exchange FTX.

McCourt believes that FTX’s failure has nothing to do with encryption technology itself. “FTX isn’t even a real decentralized web 3 product: it’s centralized finance dressed up as this particular cryptocurrency,” he said. “We’re talking about a truly decentralized social networking ecosystem where people own and control their data. Blockchain is used wisely for things that require encryption.”

While Project Liberty will undoubtedly face its own set of challenges along the way to its adoption, McCourt believes the effort will be worth it for the sake of the democracy as a whole. “Policy is driven by our politics. Politics is driven by our culture. Our culture is driven by our technology. So it’s the foundation of all these issues,” he said.

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