The Case for Public Ownership of TikTok

Frank McCourt: The idea behind the people’s bid is to ensure that the users who generate the data and value on platforms like TikTok have ownership in it. We’re assembling a coalition of different stakeholders and funding sources who see this as a viable alternative. They recognize its potential value as an investment but also align with its values and mission to offer an alternative to the current internet model where users are essentially the product.

If 170 million active TikTok users migrate to this alternative platform, we can achieve the scale needed to create a sustainable alternative internet. This opportunity with TikTok allows us to capitalize on this vision.

I’m not interested in owning TikTok or becoming its CEO. My focus is on catalyzing this alternative internet.

What prompted your campaign for internet safety?

Project Liberty aims to reshape the internet so that individuals can reclaim their privacy from Big Tech. While safety is a crucial aspect, the initiative is fundamentally about restoring individual sovereignty in the digital realm.

Around ten to twelve years ago, I recognized that public policy needed to address the direction in which technology was heading, particularly with large platforms collecting and exploiting user data. Unfortunately, our current policy framework struggles to keep pace with the rapid evolution of technology.

TikTok is valued at up to $100 billion. How much personal investment are you committing, and who are some of your partners?

Reports of TikTok’s valuation vary widely, and it’s premature to speculate on its exact worth until more details from ByteDance, its parent company, are known. If we were to acquire TikTok, it would likely be without its algorithm, significantly reducing its value. It remains a substantial investment nonetheless. While I’m prepared to invest personally, I envision this as a collaborative effort with multiple stakeholders, not solely my own endeavor.

Through Project Liberty, I’ve already committed $500 million toward addressing broader societal issues. There’s broad consensus, including among lawmakers, that safeguarding the data of 170 million Americans from exploitation and potential security risks posed by TikTok is imperative for our national interest.

Should the bid succeed, how do you plan to reshape TikTok?

The user experience on TikTok would remain largely unchanged. What would differ is the underlying power dynamic. We aim to maintain transparent algorithms that promote user engagement while ensuring user data isn’t exploited.

My inspiration from figures like Thomas Paine informs the approach outlined in my book, “Our Biggest Fight.” Much like in Paine’s era, today’s challenge revolves around deciding whether individuals remain subjects or become empowered citizens. We must reclaim our digital rights, which have been eroded in the current landscape.

You’ve mentioned that “the internet is broken” in your writings. Could you elaborate on this?

The internet has strayed from its original intent. Initially, it was meant to foster connectivity and enhance individual freedoms. However, starting around the mid-2000s, private entities began monopolizing online spaces, deploying business models reliant on surveillance and data extraction. These platforms now control critical information highways, profiting immensely from user-generated content while jeopardizing user privacy and democracy.

What’s at stake in this struggle – our data, our autonomy?

Today, our data equates to our identity. Daily interactions with “free” apps result in the extraction and monetization of our personal information, eroding our autonomy guaranteed by the Constitution. This imbalance favors Big Tech’s profit margins over individual rights and democratic integrity.

You argue that fixing the internet is crucial to repairing democracy. How do you propose we achieve this?

Recognizing this shared challenge is the first step. We must advocate for healthier alternatives. At Project Liberty, we’ve developed the Decentralized Social Networking Protocol, an open-source, decentralized technology designed to empower users and promote ethical data practices. Educating the public about viable alternatives is key to catalyzing a movement based on hope rather than fear.

Your book emphasizes this as “Our Biggest Fight.” What outcomes do you foresee?

I remain optimistic that we can restore the internet’s original promise – a digital ecosystem where users control their data and receive fair compensation for its use. This vision hinges on swift action in the next few years. Failure risks perpetuating the current status quo: tech giants profiting at the expense of our democracy and societal cohesion.

If we falter, we risk exacerbating societal divisions, exacerbating mental health crises, and further consolidating power among tech oligarchs. Yet, growing awareness of these issues signals a turning point. Our greatest battle lies ahead, but it’s one we can win for a more equitable and secure digital future.

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