Transform the Internet with the Freedom Project

Like nearly every reflective technology watcher I know, I worry about what social media is doing to our society. Algorithm-based polarization, disinformation, hate speech, etc. — all exacerbated by our current social media landscape. So I am of course interested in any attempts to address these issues.

Recently in Emtech Massachusetts Institute of Technology At the conference, one of the speakers was Frank McCourt—once a prominent native of Boston, then owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, now a real estate developer, owner of a French soccer team, and newcomer Internet hero. The final goal is embodied in Liberty Project, a website that it says is “a visionary initiative to change how the Internet works, who owns and controls personal data, and who benefits from the digital economy.” Clearly, there is no shortage of ambition there.

This isn’t the first attempt to bring the internet back, and McCourt isn’t the first to think it’s broken. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web, is trying to reinvent it for some of the same reasons that motivated McCourt. I have developed a product (Solid) and a company (categorical) to advance a new decentralized network with a pod-driven approach to data ownership and privacy. I think it’s making slow progress, but it’s a little hard to tell. Twitter announced the development of an open source social network protocol called the sky is blue In 2019, and it is still in the research stage. Thankfully, it’s now independent of Twitter, but with many of its original backers no longer working for Twitter, it could potentially be at risk. McCourt didn’t go into any detail about Project Liberty’s relationship with Solid and Bluesky, but said he wants to work with other organizations that are inclined.

How to change the Internet world

I had previously spoken with Braxton Woodham, Chairman Incomplete labs, the technology development arm of Project Liberty. At the time I felt the Freedom Project was just a technical exercise. Technology is of course important, and Woodham and his colleagues developed an open source protocol calledDecentralized social networking protocol(DSNP) which represents a person’s social graph and is controlled by each individual. There is also a blockchain component that seems to control identity management. It all sounds appealing, but I’m not technically competent to say how well it works. It wasn’t enough to encourage the world to move to a new social internet.

But at MIT McCourt said technology, while a primary focus at the start of the initiative, is only one part of Project Liberty. There are three other components:

  • verdict
  • Policy
  • a movement

The primary focus of the governance component is McCourt Institute, which sponsors research and public debate with founding partners Georgetown University (Mccourt University, where he previously donated to found the McCourt School of Public Policy) and Sciences Po in Paris, a political science-focused university. The Politics and Politics component focuses on regulators, trying to demonstrate an alternative to the current system of big tech companies owning the social graph and the personal information in it. There is no doubt that any new regulation in this regard will occur first in Europe.

The “Movement” piece is perhaps the least specific, but McCourt said it focuses on “getting people involved” and helping them understand the implications of these issues for a well-functioning society. MIT didn’t mention it, but it’s supposed to”Incomplete live broadcastHeld in September at The Shed in New York, the event falls into the ‘action’ category described as “a provocative and fully immersive environment that achieves a society where people have 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 he spoke for a few minutes, he said that wasn’t the case. He pointed out that this technology can be employed by individual companies or institutions adoption by I, 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 succeed, but at least it can happen piece by piece.

What I think it will take for Project Liberty to succeed is for a really popular social network to embrace its technology. Imagine if, for example, TikTok was built with DSNP. It went from zero users in 2016 to more than 1 billion users in 2021, and the app has been downloaded more than 3 billion times. It’s going to take skill and luck, but I’d really like to see a private social network for decentralized data grow quickly on the back of a single app and show what a different internet could be.

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