WIRED: Frank McCourt Has a Plan to Save the Internet—Buying TikTok Is the Next Step

Jun 13 WIRED Makena kelly

Frank McCourt, the real estate mogul and former LA Dodgers owner, wants to go all in on the Decentralized Social Networking Protocol.

Hey, everyone. I’m back! Big thanks to my colleagues Vittoria Elliott and Dhruv Mehrotra for taking over for the past two weeks. Hopefully you all enjoyed hearing from them.

For this week, I spoke with billionaire Frank McCourt. He’s spearheading a bid to buy TikTok and is one of the few people interested in the app who could care less about its powerful algorithm. McCourt wants to fix the internet, and he thinks TikTok could help him do it.

Let’s talk about it.

Quest to Save the Web

Frank McCourt thinks that if he takes control of TikTok, he could save the entire internet.

That’s why McCourt—the former owner of the LA Dodgers who acquired most of his wealth through real estate—announced last month that he would be mounting a bid to purchase the app from its embattled Chinese owner Bytedance. Soon after President Joe Biden signed a law forcing the company to divest or face a nationwide ban, McCourt voiced his interest. Through his Project Liberty initiative, McCourt has begun assembling what he calls a “people’s bid” bringing together foundations, investors, and others who share his vision of a more fair and open web.

That vision centers around the idea that closed platforms like Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) hold too much power over what we see online. When Project Liberty was formed in 2021, it started creating an open protocol called the Decentralized Social Networking Protocol, or DSNP, as a remedy.

“The whole American project is based on our ability to be in charge of our lives and have, first of all, agency, autonomy, choice, and liberty, and our rights have been stripped away from us by these big platforms,” McCourt told me over a video call.

Instead of starting over on a separate social network, protocols like DSNP would enable you to bring your “social graph” of friends and followers to another viewing app that better suits your moderation tastes, Audrey Tang, the former minister of digital affairs of Taiwan, told me on Tuesday. Tang is joining the Project Liberty Institute, the separate research branch of McCourt’s organization, as a senior fellow.

In recent years, social media audiences have splintered off to separate platforms. Combining followers and content has the potential to reverse this siloing.

Tang wants that option. “Having more than one email provider choice or more than one browser experience makes the world web service experience better,” she says. Maybe it can happen with social media too?

By migrating TikTok over to DSNP, Project Liberty says it could scale quickly, making it more competitive against similar protocols. Project Liberty has migrated more than 875,000 out of 20 million MeWe accounts over to DSNP since McCourt’s 2022 $150 million investment in the platform.

Owning TikTok would provide the project with more than 150 million users, even if the app doesn’t come with its enviable algorithm. Still, that number dwarfs in comparison to, say, Facebook’s reported 3 billion monthly active users.

Despite having existed for more than a decade, open protocols like DSNP have never been more popular than they are now. Mastodon is one of the few platforms that’s powered by ActivityPub, a protocol similar to DSNP. Meta’s Threads platform has also started incorporating the protocol. Anything you post on Threads could show up on Mastodon if you choose to join the “fediverse.”

Read the full piece in WIRED’s Politics Lab newsletter here.

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