Destroying The Internet In Order To Save It

With Frank McCourt - Executive Chairman of McCourt Global and Founder of Project Liberty


Episode description:

The guests who come on In Reality come prepared to talk about big issues. Truth, polarization, the information ecosystem: these are not exactly niche issues. Today’s guest though, may have the biggest embrace of anyone I’ve had on the show…

You may know Frank McCourt as the billionaire real estate magnate and owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team. However, for the past few years he has turned his focus to running the non-profit Project Liberty, the enormously ambitious goal of which is to rebuild the internet with a new pro-social infrastructure.

His new book, ‘Our Biggest Fight’, documents the dysfunctions of the current network—the spread of disinformation and polarization and the concentration of power in a few Big Tech Companies–and argues for a new blockchain based system that returns ownership of personal data to us.

Frank and Eric will discuss how the digital landscape got to this point, why it can’t be sustained, his belief that change is urgent and why he is hopeful it’s possible.

Frank’s book – ‘Our Biggest Fight: Reclaiming Liberty, Humanity, and Dignity in the Digital Age’ – https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/743398/our-biggest-fight-by-frank-h-mccourt-jr-with-michael-j-casey/

 

Transcript

 

Eric Schurenberg (00:01.556)

Frank McCorp, welcome to In Reality.

 

Frank (00:05.678)

Hey, Eric, how’s it going?

 

Eric Schurenberg (00:07.284)

It’s great to see you. Well, let’s just jump into it. Your book is our biggest fight, your company, Project Liberty, and for both of them, the foundational premise is that the harms of the internet, so the easy spread of disinformation, the degrading of civic discourse, cyber bullying, teen suicide, cyber crime, all of the harms that we all know so well, are the result of a few big tech monopolies monitoring our every online move and exploiting our data. So anyway, that’s my summary of the problem you address in the book and the company. What’s your elevator pitch? How would you rephrase that for the problem you’re tackling?

 

Frank (00:54.829)

Well, I wrote our biggest fight to shed light on Project Liberty and Project Liberty in turn is a big initiative. You know, I’ve committed a half a billion dollars to it and my hope is that others will join in because this is not my biggest fight, right? This needs to be our biggest fight and this needs to be a collective action. It’s an initiative to reclaim not just our data, but our personhood, which is what our data represents. To reclaim our personhood from the machines of big tech. It’s really to put us as individuals back in charge of our personal information, and in charge of how that information is used and in a position to participate in this new data economy, which now there’s no doubt that we see that our data has enormous value. I mean, these five companies are worth a combined $11 trillion in growing, and that’s a trillion with a T. And so these are… unprecedentedly rich entities with more power and influence than we would ever allow our government to have over us.

 

Eric Schurenberg (02:30.9)

Okay, Frank, we will jump, as we will see in the next few minutes over the course of our conversation, the undertaking of Project Liberty is enormous and highly ambitious. Let me start though with a personal note from you. So most of the listeners to In Reality probably know you as a billionaire businessman with… interests in real estate and construction and sports, including the Marseille soccer team, formerly the Los Angeles Dodgers as well. What brings you to, in reality though, is a pivot from that business to the social impact and the challenge that you just described. Was there some moment in which you kind of had a conversion to decide that this mission is where you wanted to dedicate your life?

 

Frank (03:29.192)

Yeah, Eric, I think it was actually a series of moments and or just a life’s journey and a life’s work. I mean, I grew up in a big Irish family in Boston and one of seven children. And at the dinner table, we were, as kids, quite good at identifying problems. But no dinner would… without my mom saying, okay, okay, you know, children, you’ve done a great job at identifying the problem. Now, what are you gonna do about it? And, you know, I think we all, many of us have similar stories, right? Being urged by our parents to do something about the wrongs that we see and the harms we see. I have the added advantage of growing up in a family of builders. I’m a fifth generation builder. Our building is now 131 years old. So,

 

Eric Schurenberg (04:22.036)

Hmm.

 

Frank (04:27.687)

We’ve designed and built and rebuilt all kinds of infrastructure, including internet infrastructure. So we understand a little bit about how things work and how they’re put together. So I think that too prepared me for this, for Project Liberty and the work we’re now undertaking, because I do think what we have here is an engineering problem. We have a flawed design and we can… fix that design and when we do so, the internet will amplify the positives and will minimize the negatives. In more recent history, in more, maybe even more personal terms, I’ve experienced the social media and its harms. I’ve been on the receiving end. When I had a highly public divorce in LA, you know, Facebook was six or seven years old and smartphones were now in everyone’s hands and you could see how this was starting to be used and weaponized to do harm. And I can tell you it’s a very helpless feeling, you know, to be attacked and where truth and veracity is… is not even a consideration. And then, you know, move the clock even forward further, I had the privilege of starting a public policy school in Washington, DC in 2013 with the belief, based on the combined experiences I’ve just described, that we could really get our policymaking apparatus kind of up to speed.

 

Because we’ve been… kind of in a pre -digital world from a policymaking perspective and maybe if, you know, a new public policy school in Washington DC with a massive data institute embedded in it, we could really equip policymakers with what they needed, right? And I learned, sadly learned very quickly that the data that these policymakers need to make better policy is not available to them.

 

Sitting on the service of these large platforms. And quite frankly, the policy making apparatus we have is deliberate by design. It’s a bit plotting, moves at a slower pace, while technology moves at this incredibly rapid pace. So we have a mismatch here between the policy making… apparatus that we have that we relied on formally to create good policies and good regulations to make sure things like, you know, big tech don’t harm us. You know, for instance, tobacco might be an example, right? Where we, with the policy making apparatus and the regulations stepped in to, you know, to stop the harms and prevent cigarettes being sold to miners and…

 

and putting labels on cigarette cartons and a public education campaign to show the harms and the addictive nature of cigarettes. Well, big tech moves so quickly and this is so powerful and omnipresent and necessary, quite frankly, in the world we live in today because we’re all connected to the internet and we rely on it.

 

I learned, Eric, that the policymaking apparatus we have today is not, is no match for Big Tech and its speed and scale and pace, yeah.

 

Eric Schurenberg (08:21.18)

Sure, sure. I’ve… I understand that one of the most famous quotes in policymaking in social media was Senator WeSell ads on Facebook to the commission investigating Facebook that didn’t even realize how Facebook made its money. Now, let me for the sake of argument, take the social media platform’s side in this. So obviously you’re no fan of social media developed into these giant monolithic platforms. But you could say that they got so big because they provided a service that people wanted. People were willing to trade their data in return for free entertainment on TikTok or the wealth of knowledge and access to the internet via Google or easy connections to friends and family on Facebook. Why isn’t that a fair exchange?

 

Frank (09:17.422)

Well, the first of all, I want to be clear that, you know, we’re not talking just about social media platforms. We’re talking about a flawed design overall. I’m sure we’ll get to this in a few minutes, but the…

 

Our information, everything about us, our social graphs, to use the technical term, are being, all that information is being scraped from us and aggregated by a few big platforms. And whether it’s social search or shopping, the holy grail for each of them, is our social graph information and everybody else’s. So it’s this incredibly intricate mapping of society with individual profiles that are incredibly precise and not only are archival in the sense that they record everything we’ve done or are doing, but they’re also now predictive, right? 

 

These are… these algorithms make assessments about how we think, our personality makeup, how we’re going to react emotionally to something, how we can be triggered, how we’re going to react to a certain news feed, what type of news feeds will cause that reaction, and so forth. So these are platforms that now trigger us as well as just… scan live information and accumulate it. And so whether it’s a social media platform that is scraping social graph information and then applying a social index or algorithm or search platform, applying a search index or algorithm or shopping platform that’s providing a shopping index or algorithm, it’s all of this.

 

Personal information about us, incredibly valuable, important, and intimate information about who we are. So, I call it our personhood, not our data. This is who we are in the digital age. To the second part of your question about, well, it does some good stuff at the same time as it does some harm, and don’t we do this willingly…

 

…I see it more, Eric, like a… Let me pick an example, like a… Let’s say there’s a water system that’s serving a million people in a community, and it’s the only water system that people have. So there really isn’t, you know, a choice. You can’t really live without water. And… And there’s only one provider. Right? And so… And then we learn… that 600 ,000 people in this city of a million in population are getting clean water that’s nutritional and healthy, and 400 ,000 are getting tainted water. It’s toxic, and we’re learning that households are getting sick, and some children are even dying. How would we feel about that?

 

Would we be sitting and saying, well, it does some good stuff. I mean, 600 ,000 people are getting water and people are choosing to drink the water. You know, it’s, it’s, it, it, I don’t think so. I think we would be saying, wait a second. The internet is so now so much a part of our lives. It’s we are, we’re dependent on it.

 

Frank (13:36.978)

We’re connected to it. It’s ubiquitous. It’s part of our daily routines. It’s how we exchange information. It’s how we conduct our daily lives. We’re connected to these devices not just through a smartphone, but our car is a smartphone on wheels. Our televisions are smart devices. We have Nest cameras watching our children, our infants. 

 

We have… doorbells that monitor. We have Alexis and Siri. We’re connected. Our dishwasher, for God’s sake, is connected to the internet. So this information is being scraped and accumulated, and it’s all part of our profiling. And as I said earlier, we would never, ever allow a government to have such information about us and surveil us 24 -7. 

 

And… accumulate that information about us and then use it in exploitive ways. So why are we letting these big platforms do it? So this isn’t a matter of it does some good stuff and on balance, you know, is it more good stuff or bad stuff? It’s like, why would we ever want to settle for an internet that causes so much harm? And let’s mitigate that and eliminate that harm and amplify the good stuff.

 

Eric Schurenberg (15:04.084)

Okay, I see. So there’s an element of regarding the internet as kind of a utility because it serves so many people and basically is a monopoly that operates like a utility and also because it’s a consolidation of power in these unelected organizations that just have so much more data than we would ever give even to elected officials.

 

Eric Schurenberg (15:33.94)

Your proposal is for a new protocol for online exchange called DSMP, Decentralized Social Networking Protocol, which works on the blockchain. Now, in your vision, does DSMP totally replace internet protocols now like TCEIP and HTTP, or is it just for selected nodes on the internet?

 

Frank (16:02.072)

No, it would work in conjunction with TCP IP and HTTP. And so it would be a like those two protocols, it would be a technically three protocols if you if you count TCP and IP as two, it would work in conjunction and build on those two protocols. And let’s remember the TCP IP connected devices, HTTP was the

 

Frank (16:30.748)

connected the data, it was about data links, and DSMP would connect us as individuals, as people. So, and you know, it’s probably worth noting that we all use TCP IP, right? And we’re actually still an IP address on the internet. You and I are not on this Zoom call. Our devices are on the Zoom call, right? So we’re still living in an internet built, to connect devices. And it’s time now, now that we know how the internet is being used and how powerful it is and how dependent we are on it, that we actually be, we put individuals in the driver’s seat and we actually become individuals in control of our information on the internet. 

 

And I think we’ve, I think it has time for that to happen and what we’re proposing with DSMP is that we would in fact, if DSMP were also adopted at scale like HTTP and TCP IP, we would for the first time be individuals, verifiable, identifiable individuals on the internet in control of our data. We would get the benefit of the economic, the value exchange.

 

The new apps would be clicking on our terms of use. We wouldn’t be clicking on the terms of use of a few big platforms. Our data would be portable. The apps would be interoperable, and so on and so forth. So it would be a new and improved version of the internet, meaning it’s the same internet down deep, but what the user experience would be totally different, and we would have agency and autonomy and choice returned to us. One last point. 

 

DSNP is not a blockchain protocol. DSMP is open source like HTTP and TCPIP. What it enables however is the select use of blockchain for very specific purposes like identity, attestation, verification, provenance, etc. The things that are missing in the current internet which are now causing great harm, you know, for instance, you don’t even have to be a person on the Internet, right? You could be a machine bot spewing out all kinds of misinformation. You can be multiple personalities on the Internet. I can actually pretend I’m you or vice versa. And that’s not how the world pre -Internet worked, right? If you pretended you were someone else and somebody found that you were doing that, there was a consequence. There is…

 

Frank (19:25.14)

Our internet has become, lacks integrity now, right? Because you don’t know who you’re communicating with, you don’t even know if it’s a person, nevermind if the attributes about that person are true or not. So we now have tools, technology that can solve for that. We also have an internet now where you can, and technology, where,

 

Deep fakes look as good and sound as good as an original. How does the ordinary citizen make heads or tails of all that? What’s true and what’s false? And if we have an internet where our information ecosystem is totally corrupted and we can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction and truth and falsehood, and we destroy trust…

 

Then I would argue we will destroy democracy. And I would go further, Eric, and say, show me, other than perhaps Singapore, one other thriving market economy without a democracy. And so you destroy trust. You actually imperil both our political and economic operating systems. And again, this is all happening because the internet…

 

Which was designed to be a decentralized technology empowering people has been hijacked by a few large platforms that are now using it in ways and with business models that really I think is highly inconsistent with the human rights that we otherwise protect and the property rights that we otherwise protect.

 

Eric Schurenberg (21:14.556)

Well, Frank, you’ll get no argument from me on the importance of trust and the importance of the elevation of factuality and truth in a democracy. That is certainly what in reality is all about. What you’re proposing is a massive shift in internet infrastructure. What are you doing? You know, you’ve written a book, but what are you doing at Project Liberty to make it happen? And…

 

How long do you think it will take to reach the kind of portrait you paint of a different kind of internet?

 

Frank (21:56.816)

Yeah, it’s a great question, Eric, because, and the reason I use Thomas Paine in the American Project as a framing device in the book, it’s because I think Paine really took a very complicated set of issues back in 1775, before there was a Declaration of Independence or a Constitution or a Bill of Rights or a United States of America. And he…

 

And he said to his fellow settlers at the time, you know, we can continue on the path we’re going and be subjects of a monarch and a monarchy, or we can choose to be citizens. And with that choice comes a whole set of rights, what became known as unalienable rights.

 

We can self -govern and create a government that’s of, by, and for the people and not be under the rule of a king or queen, have no rights. And by the way, we can also own things and own property and not farm land, keep enough to sustain the family and give the rest away to the feudal lords. So this…

 

This choice that he put forward to others was plain and simple. I mean, he did it in a pamphlet called Common Sense. And he took a set of issues, put it in accessible language, and really just put the choice forward. Thankfully, people chose citizenship. There was a Declaration of Independence signed and agreed upon, and it followed by a Constitution and a Bill of Rights, and the American project was off and running. 

 

And we built… the greatest country in the shortest period of time that civilization has seen because we unlocked individual liberty and the innovation that came with that, the creativity, just the… By unlocking people from this kind of constrained, controlled…

 

Frank (24:28.136)

environment and freeing them up, giving them freedom and liberty and a set of rights and by the way a set of rights that you have to respect in others in order for this to work, right? A so -called social contract. Unprecedented things happen and here we are now 250 years later and we have this awesome powerful wonderful technology called the internet yet we’re and we’re racing forward now into the era era of…

 

Artificial general generative intelligence, I’m sorry, and where as the technology races forward in their so -called progress quote -unquote in that area, we’re losing our rights. We’re being stripped of our personhood. We’re being stripped of our property. We’re no longer governable. We can’t have civil discourse because we’re programmed now to be at odds with one another.

 

Our information ecosystem is contaminated and most importantly, we are harming children. Really, really harming children. And that’s our responsibility, all of ours as adults, is to protect children and protect the next generation and make their lives better than our own. And so why, for gosh sakes, would we give all this up just to use the internet? Why not have an internet that amplifies the good things, minimizes the bad? So I don’t…

 

Eric Schurenberg (25:52.884)

All right. All right.

 

Frank (25:55.728)

I think this is hyperbole and I don’t think it’s that difficult to adopt and migrate to another protocol that enhances agency for individuals. I think it’s a heck of a lot easier than getting on a ship for three or four weeks, not knowing really where you’re going and leaving a family behind and… and leaving with nothing and having to create a whole new life. I think migration technologically is a bit easier.

 

Yes, as your ancestors did migrating from Ireland. So how much of the new net now exists and how can listeners take advantage of it?

 

Frank (26:42.128)

Well, it’s the tech works. That’s some brilliant technologists led by Braxton Woodham and Harry Evans have created this protocol and have released the code to everyone to use it’s now everyone’s and people are building on it. And the first web platform called MIUI is the first to migrate its users over. They are not an ad based data scraping platform, they’re subscription -based, and they have a privacy bill of rights, so they were, from a values perspective, aligned. And so, they have been, the engineers have been working to… create the methodology for the migration to happen seamlessly and thankfully it has and it started in earnest in the fourth quarter of last year and now nearly 700 ,000 people have migrated to this improved internet, this what I call third generation of the internet and that’s just one app. Imagine when millions of interoperable apps are now a part of this new ecosystem, all benefiting from the network effect because our data is no longer the property of a few big platforms, but it’s stored in the internet itself. So I think on the dawn of this new age, I think it can happen quite quickly. But in saying that, I do want to highlight that Project Liberty, and this is in part an answer to your prior question, I don’t even view it as a tech project. I view it as a much bigger… than a tech project. Of course we need to build out the technology and the economic ecosystem that’s going to allow it to grow and thrive. But I think this time around we need to have social scientists at the table alongside the computer scientists really making sure that we know what we’re optimizing for this time. And we can do without the move fast and break things…

 

Frank (29:00.272)

Mentality because we’ve seen that really big important things break when you approach things so glibly. So let’s actually think it through, reset the internet in a way now that we know how powerful and important it is, reset it in a way that actually optimizes for people and puts people in charge for the first time. And then let’s start creating a… Let’s bring this to citizens.

 

Let’s bring this to ordinary people. Let’s get this to be a conversation at the kitchen table, on the sidelines of the youth soccer fields, in schools, including middle and high school, not just in colleges and universities. Let’s get this conversation going. And I actually think the fact now that mums are rising up and…

 

Ringing the alarm bell because of the harms and tragically the loss that many of them have suffered here and the fear that the others have. Maybe fear will be the portal and hope will be the destination here. Maybe we can switch this paradigm from one that is this predatory and disabling technology to one where it actually is…

 

…you know, well be asking kids five years from now, is your life going to be better than your parents? And instead of them saying no, they’ll be saying, you know, enthusiastically, yes, of course it will, because I’m going to live until I’m 150 and I’m going to have a healthy life until the end because of, you know, AI and this and that, because we’ve actually got the tech working for people now, not against us.

 

Eric Schurenberg (30:48.372)

Okay, I think that’s it. It’s a great place to leave it, Frank. Fear will be the catalyst and hope will be the destination. That is a ringing phrase on which to end it. Thank you for being on In Reality and good luck with our biggest fight and Project Liberty.

 

Frank (31:10.786)

Thanks Eric. Remember it’s not my biggest fight, it’s our biggest fight. So I welcome all you and all your listeners on board. OurBiggestFight.com.


Created & produced by: Podcast Partners / Published: May 7 2024


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