Transforming the Internet with Project Liberty

Like nearly every thoughtful tech watcher I know, I’m concerned about what social media is doing to our society. Algorithmic-driven polarization, disinformation, hate speech, etc., have all been exacerbated by our current social media landscape. So I’m obviously interested in any attempts to address these issues.

Recently at Emtech MIT conference, one of the speakers was Frank McCourt, once a prominent Bostonian, then owner of the LA Dodgers, now real estate developer, owner of the French soccer team and champion of a new Internet. The latter goal is achieved Freedom Projectwhose website says it “is a visionary initiative to transform the way the internet works, who owns and controls personal data, and who benefits from the digital economy.” Clearly there is no shortage of ambition.

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 company (Break) to promote a new decentralized web with a pod-based approach to data ownership and privacy. I think he’s making slow progress, but it’s a little hard to tell. Twitter has announced the development of an open source social networking protocol called Blue sky in 2019, and is still in the research stage. Fortunately, it is now independent of Twitter, but given that many of its original supporters are no longer employed on Twitter, it is probably in danger. McCourt didn’t go into detail on how Project Liberty relates to Solid and Bluesky, but said he wanted to work with other organizations who are similarly inclined.

How to change the online world

I had previously spoken to Braxton Woodham, the head of Unfinished workshops, the technology development arm of Project Liberty. I had a feeling at the time that Project Liberty was just a technical exercise. Technology matters, of course, and Woodham and his colleagues have developed an open-source protocol called “Decentralized social networking protocol” (DSNP) which represents the social graph of a person and is controlled by each individual. There is also a blockchain component that appears to control identity management. This all sounds tempting, but I’m not technically qualified to determine how this works. At the time, however, I felt that better technology alone wasn’t enough to encourage the world to move to a new social internet.

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

  • Government
  • Politics
  • Movement

The main focus of the governance component is the McCourt Institute, which sponsors research and public discussion with founding partners of Georgetown University (McCourt’s alma mater, where he previously donated to found the McCourt School of Public Policy) and Sciences Po in Paris, a university specializing in the sciences policies. The politics and policy component focuses on regulators, trying to prove to them that there is an alternative to the current system of big tech companies owning the social graph and personal information within it. No doubt any new regulation along these lines will take place in Europe first.

The “movement” piece is perhaps the least well-defined, but McCourt said it focuses on “engaging people” and helping them understand the implications of these issues for a well-functioning society. He didn’t tell MIT about it, but presumably the “Unfinished live”, an event held in September at The Shed in New York, falls into the “movement” category. Was 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 his speech for a few minutes, he said that was not the case. The technology can be employed by individual companies or organizations, he mentioned adoption from IWe, 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 be successful, but at least it can happen piecemeal.

What I think Project Liberty will need to be successful, however, is for a very popular social network to adopt its technology. Imagine if TikTok, for example, was 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 private, decentralized data social network grow so rapidly on the back of an application and demonstrate what a different internet could be.