You sometimes hear high profile executives talking about the problem technology poses to our democracy, but how many of them are actually trying to do something about it?
Frank McCourt is.
McCourt, a 69-year-old real estate developer billionaire and sports team owner, says he’s now devoting 90% of his time to shoring up our political system and society, focusing on the foibles of the Internet, through a network of companies and projects collaborating with the likes of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, Georgetown University, and various European NGOs.
No small thing that.
Some quick notes about McCourt before we turn 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 an entire book or film to be made about that time, though McCourt may not be so keen on either being produced.
Now McCourt owns the French soccer 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 is garnering attention, which seems a long way from his multi-generational Boston-based real estate business.
Or is it?
'What are you going to do about it?'
McCourt remembers sitting around the table as one of seven siblings debating the issues of the day. “I could hear my mom's voice saying, ‘That's great. You kids have figured out the problem. Now what are you going to do about it?,’” McCourt recalls. That was then.
The problem now, figures McCourt, is, “a rapid erosion of our democracy and political system,” he says. “That is something quite frankly growing up in Boston, I never for a second thought I'd be talking to you about — the possibility that democracy was not going to survive in the United States. I am gravely concerned. I want our little family business to continue for another five generations. I'm sure others feel exactly the same way about what's 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?”
For starters McCourt has founded a concentric group of businesses and endeavors to address the problem. He started three years ago with an entity called 'Unfinished,' which "works to strengthen our civic life in the digital age," when he “wanted to find out what the heck was going on.”
“It started intentionally ambiguous and quite open,” McCourt says. “We called our first project ‘unfinished questions,’ and we crowdsourced questions from people around the world, asking them the one question that they were dying to get an answer for right now, or is of grave concern.
“It was inescapable 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 into Washington Square in Manhattan, putting up a huge placard that said, “Is tech our undoing.” That really got us very focused on the connection between technology and democracy.”
Beyond that McCourt says, “Unfinished has a big ambition, which is to re-imagine 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. This week, Martina Larkin joined Project Liberty to become its CEO. Larkin, formerly with the World Economic Forum, works out of London and its executive director works out of Paris, giving the project a strong European and globalist flavor.
What exactly is Project Liberty?
Paradoxically, McCourt says it is not a tech 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's killing people, not the hammer building homes."
"Project Liberty is a three-tracked project," McCourt continues. "A tech track which is a DSNP [or decentralized social networking protocol, more on that below], but it also has a governance track and a movement track. It’s like a Venn diagram, three circles intersecting, which differentiates Project Liberty. 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 governance and those that can remind us of history. We also need to engage civil society, citizenry who this technology impacts.”
DSNPs are essentially a protocol that would use blockchain technology to allow individuals to control their own data.
“So really we’re re-designing the way the internet works, which would be for people not for platforms,” McCourt elaborates. “Fundamentally, we need to give people ownership and control of their own data, and not allow our data to be sucked up by a few large platforms. They monetize and use our data in ways we never gave permission for. Data now is even being weaponized, where we're triggering society to behave 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 characteristics. McCourt told Kara Swisher in an interview at Georgetown University in October — both Swisher and McCourt are Hoyas, and McCourt has given some $200 million to the school — that when McCourt heard Musk was buying Twitter he sent a letter to Musk, Dorsey and the board saying: “If you're serious about Twitter being a true, genuine, public square of a digital nature, and you believe that, that requires a protocol to enable that, then here's a protocol.”
Swisher asked if McCourt ever heard back. “No,” he said. “Disappointing but not surprising.”
What to McCourt’s mind then is the fundamental problem with technology?
“The architecture,” he says. “When you ‘move fast and break things,’ then really important things like democracy are being broken. There's not the guardrails, there's not the values embedded in the technology to make sure it works in the way intended. If you optimize for rage, you get rage. 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 of the current tech architecture,” he says. “We've been collaborating with Frances. Her 'Duty of Care' initiative is a great project in this regard.”
Before I spoke with McCourt, I mentioned to a European colleague that he owns Olympique de Marseille. My coworkers eyes’ lit up. “Those fans are really out there,” he said. That 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 match is wilder than any of them. The 63,000 rabid fans were chanting and jumping up and down non-stop the entire 90 minutes, and setting off massive fireworks (explosives it seemed like), both inside and outside the stadium that had me jumping out of my socks. My ears were ringing for days. It was one of the wildest expressions of both individualism and tribalism that I have ever witnessed.
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 quashed proposed European soccer Super League, with the hegemony of the Silicon Valley giants.
“The European Super League presented an existential threat to football – but the consolidation of the tech industry presents an existential threat to humanity. If left unchecked, it will hollow out our economy and consume our democracy. We need to stand up against that centralization, and support a global movement that ensures wealth and power cannot be limited to an influential elite. If we are to create a more fair and more just society, we need to give everyone a voice -not just a few.”
You may dismiss McCourt’s decentralized democratic vision as fanciful or naive. But it seems way better to be working on that, than pushing for the opposite, which you could argue Silicon Valley has been doing.
It’s also way better than doing nothing.
This article was featured in a Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on Saturday, December 10. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe
Follow Andy Serwer, editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance, on Twitter: @serwer