Big tech doesn’t like billionaire Frank McCourt’s plan to fix the Internet
You sometimes hear high-profile executives talk about the problem technology poses for our democracy, but how many of them actually try to do something about it?
Frank McCourt is.
McCourt, a 69-year-old billionaire real estate developer and sports team owner, says he now devotes 90% of his time to strengthening our political system and society, focusing on the weaknesses of the Internet, through a network of companies and projects together with the likes of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, Georgetown University and several European NGOs.
No small thing.
A few quick notes on McCourt before we get to his quest.
You may have heard of Frank McCourt (not the late author of Angela’s Ashes), during his up and down tenure (2004 to 2012) as owner of the LA Dodgers. There’s a whole book or film to be made about that time, although McCourt might not be so keen on producing one of them.
Now McCourt owns the French football team Olympique de Marseille, one of that country’s most iconic clubs. (I recently attended a game, which I’ll get back to.)
Sports aside, it’s mostly McCourt’s Internet crusade that’s getting attention, which seems a far cry from his multi-generational real estate business in Boston.
Or is it?
“What are you going to do about it?”
McCourt remembers sitting around the table as one of seven siblings discussing the issues of the day. “I could hear my mother’s voice saying: ‘That’s great. You kids figured out the problem. Now what are you going to do about it?,’” McCourt recalled. It was then.
The problem now, figures McCourt, is, “a rapid erosion of our democracy and political system,” he says. “This is honestly something when I was growing up in Boston, I never thought for a second that I would be talking to you – the possibility that democracy was not going to survive in the United States. I am seriously worried. I want our small family business to continue for five more generations. I’m sure others feel exactly the same about what is important to them, and are deeply concerned about the future of the country and its ability to sustain what is the greatest democratic experiment of all time.”
Okay, so to quote mom, “Now what are you going to do about it?”
To begin with, McCourt established a concentric group of businesses and sought to address the problem. He started an entity called Unfinished, which “works to strengthen our civic life in the digital age,” three years ago when he “wanted to figure out what the hell was going on.”
“It started out deliberately ambiguous and quite open-ended,” says McCourt. “We called our first project ‘unfinished questions’, and we got questions from people all over the world and asked them the one question they wanted an answer to right now, or were of serious concern.
“It was inevitable that technology was on people’s minds,” he says. “The image that stuck with me was a group of young high school kids from the Bronx marching to Washington Square in Manhattan and putting up a big sign that said, ‘Has technology undone us.’ connection between technology and democracy.”
Furthermore, McCourt says, “Unfinished has a big ambition, which is to reimagine the future of government, technology and culture, to create a thriving multiracial democracy and a just economy. That’s a big, big throughline.”
Next, McCourt created Project Liberty to work on the specific connection between technology and democracy. Martina Larkin joined Project Liberty this week to become its CEO. Larkin, formerly of the World Economic Forum, works from London and its executive director works from Paris, giving the project a strong European and globalist flavour.
What exactly is Project Liberty?
Paradoxically, McCourt says this is not a technology project. “What I mean by that is that technology is just a tool, like a hammer. You can take that hammer, go outside and build a house. Or you can take that hammer and go outside and kill someone. Social media has actually been the hammer that kills people, not the hammer that builds houses.”
“Project Liberty is a three-track project,” McCourt continues. “A technology track that is a DSNP [or decentralized social networking protocol, more on that below], but it also has a driving lane and a movement lane. It’s like a Venn diagram, three intersecting circles, that sets Project Liberty apart. I don’t think we’re going to solve the erosion of democracy if we just leave it to technologists. We need social scientists, experts in management and those who can remind us of history. We also need to involve civil society, citizens who influence this technology.”
DSNPs are essentially a protocol that will use blockchain technology to allow individuals to control their own data.
“So we’re redesigning the way the Internet works, which will be for people not for platforms,” McCourt elaborates. “Fundamentally, we need to give people ownership and control over their own data, and not allow our data to be siphoned off by a few big platforms. They make money and use our data in ways we never gave permission for. Data is now even being weaponized, where we are inciting society to act in certain ways. Very, very unhealthy.”
Fast Company points out that Twitter’s bluesky project, launched by the company’s former CEO Jack Dorsey, has similar decentralized features. McCourt told Kara Swisher in an interview at Georgetown University in October — both Swisher and McCourt are Hoyas, and McCourt has given about $200 million to the school — that when McCourt heard Musk was buying Twitter, he wrote a letter to Musk , Dorsey and the board sent. and says, “If you’re serious about Twitter being a real, genuine, public square of a digital nature, and you believe that it requires a protocol to make it possible, then here’s a protocol.”
Swisher asked if McCourt ever heard back. “No,” he said. “Disappointing, but not surprising.”
So what does McCourt say is the fundamental problem with technology?
“The architecture,” he says. “When you ‘move fast and break things’, then very important things like democracy are broken. There aren’t the safety rails, there aren’t the values embedded in the technology to make sure it works the way it’s intended. If you optimize for anger, you get anger. If you optimize for democracy, you get democracy.”
I asked McCourt about Frances Haugen. “I think she’s done a great public service by pointing out the problems with the current technology architecture,” he says. “We collaborated with Frances. Her ‘Duty of Care’ initiative is a wonderful project in this regard.”
Before speaking with McCourt, I mentioned to a European colleague that he owned Olympique de Marseille. My colleagues’ eyes lit up. “Those fans are really out there,” he said. This made me curious and I happened to be in that part of the world last month so I decided to see what he meant.
I’ve been to all kinds of NFL, NBA and college football games, but an OM game is wilder than any of them. The 63,000 rabid fans chanted and jumped up and down non-stop for the entire 90 minutes and set off massive fireworks (it looked like explosives) both inside and outside the stadium that had me jumping out of my socks. My ears oozed for days. It was one of the wildest expressions of both individualism and tribalism that I have ever seen.
Is there a connection between McCourt’s sports teams and his web endeavors? He thinks so. In April 2021, McCourt published an article in the French newspaper, Le Monde, equating a recently scrapped proposed European soccer super league to the hegemony of the Silicon Valley giants.
“The European Super League posed an existential threat to football – but the consolidation of the tech industry poses an existential threat to humanity. Left unchecked, it will erode our economy and consume our democracy. We must stand up against that centralization, and support a global movement that ensures that wealth and power cannot be confined to an influential elite. If we want to create a fairer and more just society, we need to give everyone a voice – not just a few.”
You can dismiss McCourt’s decentralized democratic vision as fanciful or naive. But it seems much better to work on it than to push for the opposite, which you could argue Silicon Valley has done.
It is also much better than doing nothing.
This article appeared in a Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on Saturday 10 December. Get the Morning Brief delivered directly to your inbox every Monday through Friday by 6:30am ET. Sign in
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