The many dystopian aspects of social media have been well-documented: the flourishing of hate speech and misinformation; propaganda that can incite genocide; the harm it inflicts on body image. This month, after Elon Musk took over Twitter and rapidly changed policies around verification, the platform became flooded with imposters and scams.
But there’s another billionaire who thinks he has the answer to curing social media’s woes: Frank McCourt, the CEO of McCourt Global and once-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Last year, McCourt founded the nonprofit Project Liberty, a bold-bordering-on-improbable project to fix the internet. And on Monday, he announced his intention to step down from his chief executive position at McCourt Global to devote most of his time to the cause.
“Tech is such a big important part of our lives. It should be optimized for people, not for time online, ad revenue, or rage,” he told TIME in a recent interview.
McCourt has already committed $150 million to the project, which aims to build a new layer of the internet that gives users control and ownership of their personal data. The driving problem of the current version of the internet, McCourt argues, is that companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter are incentivized to use personal data to entice advertisers. If individuals owned their data across social platforms, he says, the social media platforms would be forced to better serve the user instead of just their advertising bottom line. As a result, toxicity would decrease, and the internet could become a true meeting ground for civic discussion.
This isn’t theoretical experimentation for some distant future. The Project Liberty team has built a base layer protocol–a set of rules for routing data across the internet–which McCourt hopes most social media users will migrate onto within the next three years.
“When it happens, it’s going to happen very quickly,” he says.
So what sets McCourt apart from Musk, another billionaire with a lofty plan to fix social media? While McCourt may be the primary funder and face of Project LIberty, he is not its CEO; Nor is he beholden to any shareholders to make Project Liberty profitable. He stresses Project Liberty will necessitate a massive communal effort, with experts from the technological, policy, governance, and social science worlds. “There’s no delusion here that these issues can be solved by any one person,” he says. “There is going to be a very large group of people solving this.”
From Real Estate to Sports to Technology
McCourt was born into a Boston real estate family empire, launched his own real estate company in the ‘70s, and made a string of deals that allowed him to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2003. McCourt’s time with the storied baseball franchise wasn’t exactly a success. Although he bought the team for $430 million and sold it about 9 years later for $2 billion, he was accused of financial mismanagement, and the Dodgers were forced to file for bankruptcy under his ownership in 2011 while running low on cash. The firm McCourt runs today, McCourt Global, is an evolved version of his first company, which now spearheads investments and projects across sports, media, finance and technology. He will officially hand over the CEO role to Shéhérazade Semsar-de Boisséson in January and remain executive chair of the company.
In the last few years, McCourt has turned his focus to social media, which he says has deeply exacerbated many of the world’s problems. “The economy, inflation, abortion, immigration, democracy: If you step away from all those issues, what drives viewpoints and opinions and perspectives on them is social media,” he says. “It’s going to be very, very hard to solve these big, important societal issues if we can’t have a coherent conversation about them. And our current use of social media currently is not designed to optimize for truth or a shared set of facts.”
McCourt has already committed $150 million of his own money to Project Liberty, and says that ultimately “billions of dollars” will be needed for the effort to effect lasting change. In an interview, he declared his intention to spend 90% of his working time on Project Liberty and 10% on McCourt Global, as opposed to the other way around. “This is a big shift in my focus, but it demonstrates the importance of Project Liberty to me,” he says.
To help make his vision a reality, McCourt has recruited a select group of technology policy, thought-leadership, and innovation luminaries. Martina Larkin, a longtime executive at the World Economic Forum, will become the first CEO of Project Liberty. Semsar-de Boisséson, who has been leading Project Liberty’s McCourt Institute, will take McCourt’s former role as the CEO of McCourt Global. Constance Bommelaer, former vice president of the Internet Society, will become the new executive director of Project Liberty’s McCourt Institute.
How Project Liberty Works
Even with a plan (and lots of money) to tackle social media’s deeply entrenched problems, it’s hard to know where to begin. McCourt says the first step is a much more holistic approach that doesn’t put engineers squarely in charge of a societal project. “Last time around, we made a mistake by having the social scientists, governance experts, and civil society somehow be subordinate to the technology,” he says. “The mantra ‘move fast and break things’ was viewed with some reverence—and well, mission accomplished.”
There is a new bit of technology that is fundamental to Project Liberty’s efforts: DSNP, an open-source protocol similar to the HTTPS protocol that underlies the internet. The goal of DSNP is to support a shared, decentralized social graph, i.e., all the connections and interactions in a social network. The user, not the network, would own their data, choose how it would or wouldn’t be used by networks, and they would be able to take their identity and online history from one network to another. The DSNP will use blockchain technology, which McCourt argues is particularly good at confirming identity, hosting decentralized storage, and deterring bots.
Project Liberty has also engaged all sorts of policy experts to think through thorny questions about establishing guardrails and governance structures in this new online world. One of those is the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who received funding from Project Liberty for a “Duty of Care” initiative to study harms and identify best practices to deter them.
“One of the things that I’m very grateful to Frank for is that other than maybe Omidyar Network, no one is coming into this space as comprehensively,” Haugen says. “There is actually space at the table for child psychologists and things like that. We would have built very different tech systems if we had built them with more different kinds of people.”
But all of these new systems could still be meaningless if people don’t use social media platforms that are built upon the tech. “The tech will be the easy part,” McCourt says. “It’s getting people interested and engaged that will be more of a challenge.”
Larkin, the new CEO of Project Liberty, says that adoption could occur via one of several pathways. First, new social media platforms built upon DSNP could gain mass popularity. (MeWe, a decentralized social media platform with around 20 million users, has already announced its intention to transition onto DSNP in the next two years.) Another possibility is that public sentiment turns forcefully against existing power players like Meta, forcing them to migrate onto the graph—although their financial incentive runs counter to doing so.
McCourt believes that the dominance of a few Golathian social media platforms will give way to “a thousand Davids” that better cater to smaller communities with more specific interests and needs. This has already begun, with apps like BeReal and Mastodon gaining huge interest in the past half-year.
Larkin boldly predicts that within five years, most social media users will be on a decentralized social media graph; McCourt says three. “We have an ambitious timeline in terms of creating real change fairly quickly, because I don’t think we have time,” Larkin says. “Social media is the main driver of undermining democracies, so we can’t wait around.”
Challenges to Overcome
Technologists who have worked in the decentralization space far longer than McCourt are cautiously optimistic about Project Liberty. “I’m really excited that Frank McCourt and Project Liberty are bringing a different level of resources to this space than has typically been here. And I think that that could accomplish a great deal,” says Glen Weyl, an economist and a researcher at Microsoft Research. “At the same time, there are really challenging technical problems that can’t be solved theoretically. They have to be resolved through actual experiments, with real user bases—and they’re at the beginning of their journey of exploring that landscape.”
“I think it’s a great idea to start at the protocol level: a lot of the changes that are meaningful changes happen there,” says Divya Siddarth, who is also an economist and a researcher at Microsoft Research. But she also contends that “individual data ownership doesn’t make any sense: It doesn’t allow shared management of data. I don’t even care enough to own my individual social media data.”
Questions also remain about Project Liberty’s usage of the blockchain, which is untested at the level of scale that McCourt hopes the protocol will achieve. Public sentiment around crypto is at a nadir thanks to the collapse of the crypto exchange FTX.
McCourt argues that the failures of FTX had nothing to do with crypto technology itself. “FTX is not even a true decentralized web 3 product: it was centralized finance that was dressed up as this special crypto thing,” he says. “We’re talking about a true decentralized social networking ecosystem, where people own and control their data. And blockchain is used judiciously for what needs to be encrypted.”
While Project Liberty will undoubtedly face a slew of challenges in its road toward adoption, McCourt is convinced the effort will be worth it for democracy as a whole. “Policies are driven by our politics. Politics is driven by our culture. And our culture is driven by our technology. So it’s fundamental to all of these issues,” he says.