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Working to Complete the Unfinished Business of a Fair and Balanced Internet
by
Posted On August 24, 2021
Frank H. McCourt Jr., chairman and CEO of the McCourt investment firm, has gained a reputation as a civic entrepreneur. “Through his firm … he has redefined value through a purpose-driven strategy that spans real estate, finance, sports, technology, and media—all with a critical focus on social impact,” according to a company press release. (McCourt is also a former owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and current owner of the French football club Olympique de Marseille.)

One aspect of this drive toward social impact has been McCourt’s sponsorship, in 2020, of a new initiative called Unfinished, which seeks “to strengthen our civic life in the digital age” by concentrating “on three challenges: redirecting technology, especially social media, to fuel collaboration over division; renewing and strengthening civic institutions to accelerate inclusive problem-solving; and growing a fairer economy.” It is the fruit of McCourt’s efforts to balance social impact and financial gains by building alliances with leaders from the business world, social activists, and others. Unfinished operates a portfolio that comprises “a media initiative, a technology lab, and a network of innovators working to advance our economy, democracy, and technology.”

WITH LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL?

In June 2021, McCourt took his challenge to the status quo to a new level with the introduction of Project Liberty, an initiative whose tagline is, “Are you ready to create a web that works better for all?” Its overall goals are very ambitious: “By reclaiming our social networks from corporate control, we can use their immense power to establish and populate the web we need and deserve: a web that is open, equitable, and centered on people. Let’s take back control of our relationships and our data, and direct our collective power to fuel higher and healthier standards.”

Project Liberty was founded with a $100 million investment from McCourt and has a current team of 35 professionals and developers. The McCourt Institute was established as a part of Project Liberty in partnership with Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and Sciences Po in Paris “to open a new and innovative front in the effort to build a smarter, more inclusive, and more open society.” The institute will announce its leadership team and first round of grants and projects in fall 2021, according to a press release.

REBUILDING THE INTERNET FROM THE GROUND UP

Project Liberty is also backing an “open-source protocol called Decentralized Social Networking Protocol (DSNP), owned by the public, to serve as new infrastructure to re-center the internet around people instead of platforms.” DSNP, per the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), “allows everyone to collaborate to create one social network that is decentralized, like the Internet itself. It is an open technology that supports private communications, in a manner that users of modern social networks have come to expect. DSNP aims to cover any use case that can be described as first creating a profile for yourself, establishing connections to people you know, then broadcasting private information to those people.”

India Times notes, “The creation of Project Liberty is the result of a fear of power possessed by the big tech—companies like Facebook who have generated such a massive user base over the years. … As of now, Facebook has this advantage since it owns heaps of data on social media connections between its users, giving it a considerable edge over competitors. If all social media companies, however, had similar social media connection data, it would level the playing field for all and not have one platform (in this case, Facebook) to dominate the rest.”

DSNP uses blockchain technology, which keeps user records in the same way as it stores data about cryptocurrency transactions. “Contrary to what some think, blockchain technology is not only about digital currencies, but is suitable for encrypting and storing any type of data,” notes al-Khaleej Today. “[T]he new protocol will store this information in a decentralized way, meaning that it will not be registered with a specific party, but rather in an encrypted form based on blockchain technology. …”

Helen Partz at Cointelegraph reports, “This decentralized approach has the potential to undermine the power of content moderation by allowing users who are kicked out of one platform to simply move their audiences to more permissive ones. The platform could also discourage bad behavior because people would be tied to their posts forever, as blockchain data is immutable.” India Times expresses a concern: “Project Liberty has some issues it needs to take care of before it goes live. For instance, the current process is deeply rooted [and] would be difficult to eradicate and Project Liberty wants to start everything afresh on a flat playing field.”

According to the Project Liberty website, “For decades private companies have controlled our social networks and related data in walled gardens. … [C]ompanies have become de facto gatekeepers of our interactions, and they reap the vast rewards of our data.” Creating a whole new model, Project Liberty asserts, will end the inequity inherent in privatization. Although still in its early stages, Project Liberty claims that its “vision is big—some would say audacious. But it’s also urgent and necessary.”

This isn’t quite like David fighting Goliath with just a sling and five stones. The opinions of stakeholders, users across the globe, and many members of Congress provide a strong base of support for the idea that the internet can still be “saved” for the good of all. McCourt’s financial backing and the talented team behind Project Liberty make this an initiative to watch over the coming months.


Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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