Finally, a good idea to fix TikTok

Billionaire Frank McCourt is bidding to make the social app a proving ground for his nonprofit’s pro-user, pro-democracy vision.

Peter A. McKay
3 min readMay 21, 2024
Billionaire Frank McCourt, speaking at the Web Summit in Lisbon in November
Frank McCourt speaking at Lisbon’s Web Summit in November. Image by Web Summit via YouTube

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I’ve previously documented my deep concern about a new U.S. law to force a sale of TikTok soon, or else ban the app in this country altogether. Threatening millions of users with the latter scenario is a First Amendment nightmare, in my opinion.

Then the story got a notch worse when former U.S. Treasury Secretary (and former Goldman Sachs banker) Steve Mnuchin announced an interest in buying TikTok’s U.S. assets. If such a political insider were to end up the winning bidder, it would only further politicize a situation that really, really doesn’t need it. And a Mnuchin acquisition could set up awful conflicts of interest at TikTok heading into November’s presidential election and the next administration.

But on Wednesday we finally got a smidge of what I would call actual good news about TikTok: Frank McCourt, a billionaire and vocal Big Tech gadfly, announced that his nonprofit Project Liberty is organizing a “people’s bid” for the social network.

The idea would be to use TikTok to implement the more humane, pro-privacy, pro-democracy version of the internet that McCourt and Project Liberty have been advocating the last few years.

On the technical side, Project Liberty promotes an open-source project called the Decentralized Social Networking Protocol. McCourt’s TikTok announcement didn’t specifically mention DSNP, but that protocol is a high-percentage bet to become part of the app if whatever investment group McCourt assembles wins the bidding for TikTok.

On a more layman-friendly note, I would highly recommend McCourt’s recent book Our Biggest Fight, co-authored with my former Dow Jones colleague Michael J. Casey. They do a truly exceptional job making issues like privacy, Big Tech’s data collection, and its ill effects on society digestible for non-developers.

The book is unabashedly a manifesto. But even if you don’t agree with all McCourt’s prescriptions, his discussion of the underlying illness is thought-provoking and well worth a read. In some way, we ultimately all have to deal with the issues he raises.

It’s also worth mentioning here that a lot of other people and organizations are working on the problem of building saner social networks than the ones Big Tech foists upon us. Alternatives include several blockchain-based social networks like Mirror, Nostr, and Minds; as well as the federated ActivityPub protocol, which is the basis for the Mastodon social network.

For better or worse, though, those are all effectively building user bases from scratch, with software development ongoing as well. The prospect of taking an existing, centralized network like TikTok that already has millions of U.S. users and opening it up is a very different proposition, tantalizing in its own way.

Maybe that’s a bad thing. Maybe such a transition is impossible to pull off. Or maybe it’s such a crazy idea, it just might work. 😊



Peter A. McKay

Storyteller, thought leader, and marketer focused on blockchain/web3. I publish #w3w, a newsletter about decentralization. Ex-reporter for the Wall St Journal.