Billionaire Frank McCourt is launching a crusade against tech

What led the wealthy scion of one of America’s greatest industrialist families to, late in life, begin a crusade to overhaul the entire internet infrastructure? Even great wealth can’t protect someone from harm: how mean people can be on the internet.

Amid a messy and public divorce that was ultimately settled in 2011, then-Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt Jr. faced backlash from the team’s fans on the Internet. He expected attention, not vitriol.

“Of course it comes with the territory,” McCourt told wealth in an interview. “You have a great team like the Dodgers in a big media market like Los Angeles, and you’re going to get divorced. There’s going to be a lot of noise — I understand that.”

But this was 2010 to 2011, the birth of the social media era.

“At the time, Facebook was six or seven years old, and smartphones were everywhere,” he recalls. “I’ve seen how social media can be used as a weapon of character assassination. People with bad intentions can say whatever they want and you have no way to defend yourself.”

A decade after that “very difficult time,” McCourt founded the Freedom Project, an advocacy group dedicated to reforming the internet and reducing the power of big tech companies. For McCourt, one of the key issues plaguing Internet users is the vast amounts of user data collected by a handful of companies (he cited Alphabet, Meta and Amazon, among others). These companies and many others, from tax preparation companies to automakers, collect information on everything from who a user’s closest friends are to where they were on a given day to their mood. They often use these vast amounts of data to predict people’s lives and future behaviors with an accuracy that borders on clairvoyance.

Amazon, Meta and Google parent Alphabet did not respond to requests for comment.

Intellectuals and technologists across the globe are talking about the extraordinary power of certain technology companies bringing about a new world order. Critics have coined new terms like surveillance capitalism (coined by former Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff) or technofeudalism (as former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis calls it) to describe it. Digital data aggregation permeates the world of real-world surveillance, while vast amounts of collected information enrich the interests of a handful of companies and individuals.

While the terminology may vary, the core idea is that these companies wield immense power. Sometimes it can even be compared to the government. A centrist version of this story comes from tech blogger Ben Thompson, who wrote in a recent Stratechery newsletter: “Over the past two decades, we have moved toward a world still organized by nation-states, but with parallel ‘s political economy is defined by American technology companies.”

McCourt wants to take the data controlled by big tech companies, and the power it implies, and return it to internet users through a new system called the Decentralized Social Networking Protocol. Essentially, the idea is that the companies that dominate the internet — Google search, Amazon shopping, Meta social — will be forced to give up their monopoly on data collection. McCourt is now one of the latest thinkers to weigh in on the state of the digital world.

For McCourt, what we are devoured by algorithms online is not just a collection of data points, but a matter of personality. “All this information about us is an archive of our lives — that’s who we are in the digital age,” he said.

McCourt said this digital persona, which also makes up much of our offline lives, belongs to big tech companies. “If I say, ‘Describe yourself,’ you’re going to list a bunch of attributes,” he said. “Well, these and tens of thousands of other pieces of content are now mapped to these big platforms. So they own you. They own me. We need to fix this.”

Varoufakis, McCourt and others argue that technology companies maintain their power by becoming black boxes inaccessible to ordinary online users.

“It was very controlling and manipulative,” McCourt said. “I would say this is totally inconsistent with democratic ideals. America’s secret weapon is not totalitarianism, dictatorship and 24/7 surveillance. It’s about individual freedom, choice and autonomy.”

What’s even worse, McCourt said, is that they then sell the data to advertisers for huge sums of money. Meta earned $131.9 billion from ad sales in 2023, while Alphabet earned $65.5 billion from ad sales in the fourth quarter of 2023 alone.

“Everything we do in our digital lives (a huge amount) is monitored and mapped,” McCourt said. “This is the holy grail of the commercial internet right now. It has all this information about us so that we can be sold things, telling us what to read, or how to think, or how to be triggered, because these algorithms know us better than we do. “

McCourt believes there is a major dissonance when people create data and companies own it. Instead, he wants users to own their data and then, if they choose, choose to sell it to advertisers.According to his recently published book, this could be useful if they happen to be in the market for a certain product Our greatest struggle: reclaiming freedom, humanity and dignity in the digital ageCo-authored with Michael Casey, Chief Content Officer at CoinDesk.

“We are the ones who own the data; businesses, charities and other entities that want to use it should provide us with something in return,” McCourt and Casey wrote.

What is the decentralized Internet?

McCourt said ordinary Internet users were being treated unfairly, trading all their privacy for free apps or online services. This is a deal they would not accept in the real world. What if a company offered free stamps for life but in return required to read your mail, “install cameras in every room of your home to monitor you 24/7” and “benefit from all of your relationships, thoughts and feelings” , we would say ‘You’re crazy,'” McCourt said.

In essence, McCourt is questioning the maxim that governs much of online life—if it’s free, then you’re the product.

He believes that to mitigate this risk, people should be able to own their own data. In the new internet McCourt envisions, users will set their own terms of use and, if companies agree, their information can be used to target advertising or collect information.

McCourt likens much of what he does to RCN, a telecommunications company founded in 1993 by his brother David McCourt. According to McCourt, the company’s big innovation at the time was allowing people to have their own phone numbers so they could use them at any time. When they move from one phone company to another. This means they don’t have to provide new contact information to all their friends and family. He said this new interoperability is key to creating a competitive phone industry that doesn’t leave consumers stuck with the same provider because of the inconvenience of having to get a new phone number. McCourt believes the same should apply in the digital world with online data. Users should be able to take their data with them wherever they go on the internet.

“People have a visceral emotional response to having a phone number, and I think they’ll definitely have a stronger response to having their own information, data and social graph online,” McCourt said.

To achieve this goal, McCourt hopes to create a new Internet protocol that makes protecting personal privacy a built-in feature of the new Internet. Just as early Internet protocols such as TCP/IP allowed devices to connect to each other; then came HTTP, which essentially gave everyday users of computers the opportunity to access the Internet through a web browser, becoming the foundation of contemporary online life. None of these protocols belong to one company, which is why using the internet generally has the same experience on any device, no matter what website or app someone uses. No one company “owns” the Internet—hence the term decentralization.

“If we as humans are users of the Internet,” McCourt said, “if our relationships and our data and our information create value, then why not create another layer of protocols that actually frees up the data so that it’s not Property of these big platforms, but embedded in the internet itself?”

This echoes proposals from other Internet luminaries, including computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, who is considered one of the founders of the Internet. Berners-Lee was also a critic of the concentration of data in the hands of large corporations, and he “had a vision of another world where the data did exist, but it was directed by the users themselves,” he told us. time 2019.

Businesses will lead and governments will follow

For McCourt, the solution will require new companies to shape this new digital world he imagines. “We need to innovate our way out of this, because I don’t believe the government can regulate our way out of this,” he said.

Instead, businesses must show the way for governments.

“What they really need is technology that can enable and achieve these public policy goals,” MCCourt said. “Instead of trying to limit things that are harmful and out of control, why not align technology with social policy goals?”

The European Union has made significant progress in passing laws aimed at regulating big tech companies. In 2016, the European Union passed the General Data Protection Act, which is considered one of the strictest data privacy laws in the world. It also passed two new pieces of legislation – the Digital Markets Act and the Digital Services Act – aimed at limiting the influence the industry’s biggest players have over digital markets such as app stores and digital advertising exchanges . McCourt said the Liberty Project’s call for a decentralized internet has “a large audience in Europe” because they believe the new protocol is consistent with the continent’s public policy goals.

One thing he needs help from the government is if one day the government does pass a law that creates a decentralized internet, he will get his personal data back from the companies that already own it. “The issues will be resolved…but if you want your profile data, you should be able to get it.”

Until then, McCourt has been vocal about what he sees as the unfairness of current online life. “We’re not even citizens of the digital world,” he said. “We are subjects. We are just data for these big platforms. It’s very dehumanizing and it’s sucking the life out of us.”

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *