Billionaire real estate mogul and former Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt is donating $ 100 million to try to rebuild the foundations of social media. The effort, which he nobly named Project Liberty, focuses on building a publicly accessible database of people’s social connections, allowing users to move records of their relationships between social media services to instead of being locked into a few dominant applications.

The undercurrent of Project Liberty is the fear of power that a few large companies – and in particular Facebook Inc. – have amassed over the past decade. “I never thought I would question the security of our underlying systems, namely democracy and capitalism,” McCourt said. “We live under constant surveillance, and what’s going on with this massive build-up of wealth and power in the hands of the few, it’s incredibly destabilizing. It threatens capitalism because capitalism needs a certain form of equity to survive.

McCourt is hardly the only one to feel this. Others are trying to reform social media by passing new laws or regulations, waiting for the next generation of startups to disrupt current incumbents, or pressuring Facebook to turn in on itself and overhaul its business model. McCourt, along with others like Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter Inc., say the solution could be blockchain, the technology behind bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

Project Liberty would use blockchain to build a new internet infrastructure called the Decentralized Social Network Protocol. With cryptocurrencies, the blockchain stores information about tokens in everyone’s digital wallets; the DSNP would do the same for social connections. Facebook owns the data on social connections between its users, which gives it a huge advantage over its competitors. If all social media companies relied on a common social graphic, according to the theory, they would have to compete by offering better services, and the chance of a single company becoming so dominant would collapse.

The construction of the DSNP goes to Braxton Woodham, co-founder of the Sun Basket meal delivery service and former CTO of Fandango, the movie ticket sales site. Woodham had toyed with the idea of ​​building something like DSNP, but didn’t imagine anyone would be interested in investing in it. When he mulled over the idea with McCourt, he said: “I just thought we were talking about our daydreams, I didn’t think it was something we would actually do.”

Instead, McCourt hired Woodham to develop the protocol and pledged to invest $ 75 million in an institute at Georgetown University in Washington, DC and Sciences Po in Paris to research technology that serves good. common. The rest of his $ 100 million will be used to push entrepreneurs to create services using the DSNP. McCourt calls this his third attempt to fix social media, having previously invested in tech companies he says will help transform the way people interact online. His previous attempts have convinced him that entrepreneurs need to be backed by academic thinkers exploring the industry’s biggest ethical questions.

The idea of ​​the blockchain protocol echoes a project Dorsey pushed on Twitter called Bluesky. Dorsey has been at the center of the fight over how companies like hers should monitor their users. He said after Twitter banned former President Donald Trump that a blockchain-based social graph would lower the stakes when private companies make user decisions. “The reason I have so much passion for Bitcoin is in large part because of the model it demonstrates: a fundamental internet technology that is not controlled or influenced by any individual or entity,” Dorsey tweeted on January 13. . “That’s what the Internet is. wants to be, and over time it will be more and more. “

While the power of social media companies makes many uncomfortable, critics also accuse them of not wielding their power effectively, which allows for abusive behavior. A decentralized approach to social media could actually undermine the power of content moderation, allowing users who are excluded from a platform to simply migrate their audience to more permissive audiences. McCourt and Woodham say blockchain could deter bad behavior because people would be linked to their messages forever.

Before Project Liberty grapples with such problems, it has to worry about attracting enough people to count. The way things are done today is deeply rooted, and Project Liberty proposes that the whole Internet begin to do things in radically different ways. Ultimately, the group plans to build its own consumer product on top of the DSNP infrastructure, and wrote in a press release that the end result will be an “open and inclusive data economy where people own, control and derive greater social and economic value from their personal information. McCourt also believes recent history has underscored the dysfunction of the current system, punctuated by the disinformation-fueled riot on the United States Capitol on January 6. What do social media users really have to lose? sump that was created, ”he said. “Look at the reality that the Internet has become. “

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