CEO of Project Liberty, Martina Larkin, joins Niki remotely in the studio to talk about the non-profit’s hope for the future of the internet. They take a deep dive into data, decentralization, and how DSNP gives power back to the user. Niki makes the case for a digital backpack or ID and Martina shares how researchers, NGOs, and tech can partner together to make the next generation of the web safer for all.
Niki: I’m Niki Christoff, and welcome to Tech’ed Up! On today’s episode, Martina Larkin, CEO of Project Liberty, joins me to talk about her non-profit’s mission to optimize the internet for people and not ads. She makes a passionate plea for all of us to get involved in the mission to take back the internet and use tech to shift power from a few companies to billions of humans.
Niki: Today's guest on Teched Up is Martina Larkin. She's calling in from London. Martina, thank you for joining us.
Martina: Thank you for having me.
Niki: So, you are the CEO of Project Liberty and my goal in this show is to explain what Project Liberty is and how it's part of a movement, a mission, in reinventing how the internet works.
So, I'm going to start by giving a quick bio of you and I think the best way to highlight what you've done is: you're on a jillion boards. [Martina: chuckles] You're a governing member of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology International, an advisory member to the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology, a member of the European Council of Foreign Relations, a founding member of Scale Up Europe. You're on a future fund focused on Finland.
That's just a smattering, but looking at your biography, I would describe you as an expert in politics, economics, and the internet. Does that sound fair and right?
Martina: That's right. Yeah, I think so. Yes.
Niki: Given this background, you've decided to move into a role as the CEO of Project Liberty.
So what I'd love to talk about is what drew you to that role, what you're hoping to do in it, and what the mission of the organization is.
Martina: Yeah. I spent many years at the intersection of big, big issues in the world, global challenges from climate change to women's empowerment and, and equality and inclusion to economic growth and one thing that always stood out was how really transformational technology has been. And, over the years, also that the recognition that we were essentially reaching a point of another big tech revolution.
We called it at that time at the World Economic Forum, the fourth industrial revolution. And it really centered around the fact that we are facing rapidly changing technologies that are impacting all aspects of our lives in such dramatic fashion that that we really need to pay attention to what is happening, both the risks, but also, of course, the opportunities that we're seeing in that.
For me, technology and its role vis a vis society has been really part of my entire career and life. And because it is such an important part of our lives, I feel very strongly that it should be optimized for people and not for ad revenue, or rage or, you know, time online or, or, you know, benefiting certain companies to become bigger and richer, but really optimizing for healthier, safer societies. And that's what drew me to the vision and mission of the organization McCourt founded.
Niki: So Frank McCourt, he's [chcukling] a, a wealthy American who's very focused on the harm to democracy based on the way social media is structured. So, you just said this in passing, but I'll double down on it.
Rage, outrage is a big part of social media, specifically Twitter, but just in general, anything that gets clicks, that takes your time, your attention, that provides more ad revenue, which is the model for most of these apps.
And that has undeniably harmed democracy worldwide, but certainly in the United States.
Martina: He's behind the vision for this, which is very much around recognizing the problem of the current version of the Internet and also recognizing that we're at the cost of, of the next generation of the Internet and that we should aim to build the next generation of the web, a better web for a better world, essentially that gives users more control and ownership over their personal data and, you know, changes essentially the power structure from a few dominant market players to each of every individual.
Niki: Can you talk a little bit about that?
The few market players. So that's often called, like, centralized and we're moving to decentralized. I don't think average people think of it that way, but can you talk about that a little bit?
Martina: Yeah, well, y’know, the way that it has worked is, is that a few companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter, are incentivized to use personal data of users to entice advertisers, that's basically their business model, right?
And so, they grew very fast and very big because they had unfettered access to personal data of users, and they were happy and willing to give that data because the tools came for free, and, y’know, it was, is great and they could connect, and they could see all, all the benefits. And slowly, over the years, we have seen the harms creeping in and how it has actually not been a force for, for, for a better future, but really has, has created quite a bit of harm and destruction across society, both from mental health issues with teens and kids to misinformation, disinformation and, and, and trust issues online, but also, of course, the undermining of democracies around the world.
Having observed the control and power of these companies, the aim now is to say, “Okay, let's, let's move away from having a few monopolies on this and give the power to the individuals to control their own data and have a say and more agency what happens with their own data.” That's, in short, probably how I would describe it.
And, you know, when we think about decentralization versus centralization, it's not just the power itself that we're talking about, but also the data structures themselves. So the idea of the next generation is really to think about it as a, as a concept where users will be connected via a decentralized network and have access to their own data and not just having access to, through a few very siloed, sort of, walled garden companies, right?
So when you're on Twitter and you want to go on Substack, there's no way you can transfer your information or your data or your followers, right? You have to every time you open a new app or, like, access a new app, or you join a new app, you create everything from scratch. [frustrated chuckle] In an ideal world, it would operate like an email where you, you send an email, it doesn't matter which, which server you use, you just send an email to anyone, and the same should happen with your data and your, your social media presence.
Niki: You just said something that I think hits a really specific use case that I think anyone can relate to, which is, say, you're on Facebook for years and years and years, I haven't been on Facebook forever, but say you're on Facebook for years and years, and you want to just take your followers and move them to another platform, even to Instagram, you cannot, [Martina: No] it just sort of, who follows you on Instagram might be a much smaller subset because it's, maybe you haven't been on it as long, and so you feel stuck in this ecosystem.
You may not even like Facebook. You may be tired of being on Facebook, but you can't take your photos with you easily. They do have data portability, but it's hard. It's not simple to take that with you and to port it over. And it's certainly not simple to recreate it somewhere else. So we are sort of trapped in these like you said, walled gardens.
We're against our will sometimes. I mean, I'm trapped on Twitter. I want out. [Martina: chuckles] But sometimes I'm on it because that's where reporters are. And I don't have another good, easy way to see what reporters are writing. It's a really good news source for me. And I do not like the platform. [Martina: Yes] I do not like the ownership individually, personally, I've got a problem with the owner and the way things are being run.
And yet, I'm still on it. Not every single day, but almost every day.
So what we're talking about is the idea that these are centralized big companies, and there's an opportunity to move to the individual ports their data, owns their data, chooses what is shared, what is deleted. That's the idea of a decentralized internet.
Is that right?
Martina: Yes. The idea to, to put it very simply, is to have really an internet without servers and, and to find a way where you would use the internet without needing those centralized servers. You're sort of getting away from having decentralized hubs into just us having interactions together and creating a different kind of public infrastructure, essentially.
Niki: And what we're describing is something that people might have heard these terms, which is Web2 and now Web3. So Web2 being this more centralized structure with servers and Web3 being decentralized, peer-to-peer, person to person, individual.
Is that right?
Martina: Yes, that's right. And accessing your own data, like, having much more agency over your data. I think that's critical as well to recognize that the core of this is data. That's also what is interesting to those companies and why they're doing this. They're collecting your data every day, every minute of the day.
Niki: And you can't, you can't curtail what they're collecting. You just click on “Terms of Service” because you have to.
Martina: No, and also there's also a question of, of ownership. For example, if you post photos and, you know, I, I, I'm a mother of two young children. And I would never post any photos of my children online, even, y’know, to friends groups on Facebook, because if you post it on certain platforms, they own your pictures.
And who knows what happens then? You just don't know.
Niki: Okay, this is! [excitedly] We don't know! I was in a closed-door meeting with Senator Blackburn, Marsha Blackburn, and Mozilla Foundation was giving testimony, and she made the point that dating apps, which at the time I was on, will take your photo that you use to sign up, then maybe you get off the dating app. They keep it. [Martina: Yep]
They can use it as though you are still on the site to, to sort of make their numbers look bigger. They can use you in advertising. I had, I'd never read the terms and conditions. I just signed up. I'm a hostage to dating in Washington, D. C. And I thought about it, and I went and I deleted everything.
I have no idea if my photos are still there, but I found it incredibly disconcerting. [Martina: Yes] I work in tech and it never occurred to me that they'd keep my photo for advertising or even in the mix of dateable people.
Martina: Yeah! Absolutely. And that's, you know, that's one photo of an adult, but what about children? What about those who might be a bit more vulnerable, right? What about all your credit card information, your shopping history, where you are, what you're doing, who you're seeing? How you're using social media or, what are you purchasing, what websites you're visiting? I mean, you, we might have a conversation here about what dating apps and I might get, y’know, tomorrow I might get some ads about the latest dating apps in my region in London, right? Like, this is how it works.
And they pretend, “Oh no, we're not collecting that data.” But certainly, it is being done because I think we have all, all seen it happening.
Niki: Right. And we think about that with our own, you know, you and I will talk dating apps, then maybe you will get something with dating apps.
I have found recently the way they triangulate who's on your Wi-Fi. I've been getting recommendations on Instagram about sober living. So, I'm thinking, well, “Who around me is looking at this?”
Martina: Oh wow!
Niki: That's a huge invasion of whomever's privacy that I'm thinking, who that I share Wi-Fi with is potentially thinking about alcohol abuse disorder.
It's very troubling to me. I would like to be searching stuff without it ending up on other people's phones. [Martina: Yes. Absolutely!] And it's completely disconcerting, and yet I don't know how else.
Martina: And so you should! And you should. It's, you're right. I mean, it is your data, and it's your, y’know, your personal space.
You should be allowed to do that. And yet it's not the reality and, and yet we're not somehow outraged about it enough to do something about it.
Niki: I'm outraged, but I'm Gen X, so I'm outraged from the minute my feet hit the floor in the morning [Both: laugh] until I go to bed at night. I just wake up in a low-level state of outrage [chuckles] but so we've identified the problem. And one of the things Project Liberty is working on is a solution. [Martina: Right]
And one of the solutions is a. In my opinion, a little bit complicated to describe, which is DSNP, but if you were to describe to a layperson the protocol you're working on and how that, how that would operate, it's a potential solution to what we've just identified as this current situation that we find ourselves in.
Martina: What is different and I think very unique and also make me really drawn to Project Liberty itself is that. This is not about pointing out the harms or the problems only. This is really about building a solution and an alternative way forward.
Our focus is primarily on building that future. This is also in line with our founder. He said, he's a builder. [chuckling] So we are building that future. That is core to our DNA and what we're, we're here to do now. The technology itself is critical because, as we have just spent a few minutes talking about, data, is it the underlying asset here, the underlying value.
The idea is really to create different infrastructures. So, put a layer on the internet where the data collection doesn't happen from the big data companies or big tech companies, but you, as the user, have access to decide what's going on with your data. You have agency over that.
The DSNP, the decentralized social networking protocol, is a protocol that sits on, on a layer of the internet to give you that right and access. It is now live in one of the social media apps in the U.S. It's called MeWe. It's about 20 million users on it, and the idea is to create an ecosystem where you have thousands of apps and billions of users on this protocol and that you can seamlessly change and exchange your data, potentially, y’know, share your data if you want to, and not if you don't want to. You can choose to, y’know, receive certain advertising from companies you might want to, if you're a runner, you might want to share some data with Nike because you want to get the latest news or, or advertising for the latest shoes, but you might not want to share other things.
The idea of giving that agency and power to the individual user is really what that protocol does, but we're, y’know, more broadly building a responsible tech ecosystem around solutions that could be, y’know, pertaining to a digital ID or things that, y’know, just create a more responsible ecosystem around different technologies, not just social media, but maybe AI or whatever we have in the future.
Social media is not the only technology that we're trying to get to grips with at the moment and certainly not in the future as well. We're not just a tech company, right? We're doing so much more than that.
We're also doing research with, with key academic partners, Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Sciences Po in, in Paris and, and Georgetown University and, and also doing some public opinion research around what, what people actually think about social media and technology, AI, how it impacts democracy, their lives, what they think should be done about it. That's the second big piece in addition to technology.
And then the third one, I would say, is the people and organizations because, obviously, y’know, we are one organization, it's a big mission [chuckling], and this, this cannot be dealt with by one organization or individual.
This requires a massive community effort, communities and experts from all different backgrounds, technology, policy, governance, and social science, and, you know, NGOs need to come together.
We're not delusional. [chuckling] This is not an issue that can be solved by any one person or organization. We need a very large group of, of people solving for this.
Niki: I've heard you say, I think it was on a panel that this needs to be more than a niche experiment, and it does feel a little bit - well, 20 million signups is not niche! That's a lot of people for MeWe, and then there's Blue Sky, and there's Mastodon.
I tried to sign up for Mastodon, and I ended up: you choose your server. I ended, I chose the cat server. Then everything was in French [Martina: chuckles] and I found it really hard to use. So, I think that that's going to be a challenge for technologists is, not just technologists, but also when you do public opinion research, people don't have a lot of time. [Martina: Oh, yeah]
And so I'm sitting there trying to figure out these totally new apps and how they work. And especially by having more agency, I also have a little bit more work to make right now, for it to be usable. The UI is harder with these. So do you think that that's an issue? For me, that's one of the speed bumps to this is getting people to use it, not because they don't want an option, but because it just feels overwhelming.
Martina: Oh, yeah, no, I definitely think users feel very overwhelmed right now and, y’know, it's, it's very understandable. It's the simple solution. It's just to go, “What's there? And, like, yes, it's not great, but we just deal with it, right?”
I mean, if we think about the next year, ‘24, right, this year of democracy with nearly 70 elections around the world. How is social media and AI going to impact that? I think we need to start thinking a bit more broadly about what we need to do jointly as, as a society to, to get to grips with this.
Yes, there is, y’know, the sort of beginnings of the dawn of some of these solutions coming out. And that's why I think we're here and we're asking for partners to come on board because we want to make this like a big tent approach. Like, come join us, build this alternative future because, y’know, we can't do it alone.
We, we're not going to do, be the only ones who, who wanna do this. And so the partnerships with all types of different organizations and individuals is really critical 'cause scaling this and migrating enough people onto this new ecosystem is obviously core.
Niki: Especially because people have to recreate everything from scratch.
So, when I went to Bluesky, which Jack Dorsey works on as sort of an alternative to Twitter, I'm recreating from the very start. And actually people created little uses of the API to try to bring over your followers or to see who was on it. It was like workarounds because otherwise, you're just going one by one, y’know, for an app you might have had for ten years.
Martina: Yeah, exactly!
Niki: Trying to recreate it.
Martina: Yeah, so I'm sure, like, yeah, exactly. There's going to be like a whole suite of tools, I think, and APIs that, that start to integrate things. And the interoperability also, I think, amongst those tools is critical, right? Like, it can't be that we have all these, like, sliced, where it's like a thousand different options.
We have to just have like a big thing that people can, can start sort of seeing the difference. The same way, y’know, when we talk about moving to the next generation of the internet, we can't just, like, have, y’know, five people moving into this next generation of the internet. We need billions on that [Niki: Right], and that, that requires the right technology.
And it requires easily accessible technology because people won't go otherwise. You can have as much goodwill as you want, but, y’know, you're not going to use the technology if it's, if it's really cumbersome and, and, and just waste of time.
Niki: That's right. I think also the other thing is that there's, of course, I always err toward this, which is communications, but there's a communications deficit of explaining that this even exists, that this is even a possibility for people. [Martina: Yes. Absolutely] You mentioned digital identity, which I think will resonate a lot with, with average people, but they don't even, I think most people don't think about their digital identity or what that means in the future or what that could look like, but it feels like a good use case, y’know, beyond social media of how this might work. Would you talk for a minute about digital identity?
Martina: Yeah, for sure. We have lots of our identity online. Whether it's our health data or our personal data or our family data, location data, y’know, financial data, [chuckling] whatever you have is, is all online. And so, the fact that we don't have a way to identify easily the individuals is obviously, like, a key question here. And so creating a digital ID where you can identify the individual user, but then also you can use that to log into things. You can use specific aspects of your identity or your digital ID to log into certain things that might require more or less security and identity layers, right? Like, you need a passport to travel, but you might not just need, I don't know, something much less to, to access like a bar or something like that.
We've seen all of this news about, you know, kids being deepfaked in, in pornography or, y’know, politicians being deepfaked in, in political videos about things they never said. And the idea that you would identify an individual and content and media with it is really what it relates to, right?
You want to know where it's coming from. You want to know that that content is created by an individual or a source that is trusted, like the New York Times or the, y’know Getty Images or something like that.
So, making sure that we create IDs to identify yourself. Because now, virtual worlds and physical worlds are so seamlessly sort of interconnected. It makes no sense to me that we, we don't have a way to identify the virtual world.
Niki: So the two things I'm hearing you say, one is actually a friend of mine, Evin McMullen, talks about a digital backpack, and she's working on this.
The idea is you, you talked about going into a bar. I don't think they have this in Europe, but in the US, we have our weight on our IDs, our driver's license, which is, first of all - Mine's wrong. Everybody's is wrong. It's whatever I weighed when I was 16, minus 5 pounds. [Martina: chuckles] And so, why do they need to know that when I go into a bar? [Martina: Exactly]
Maybe they need to know my age, but my weight is shared every time I show my driver's license to someone along with my home address, which they also do not need. [Martina: Yeah]
And so the idea is that with a digital ID, you would have one single source of truth, and then you would have more control over what you share and how you share it. And as you have these apps that are more bespoke and give you more options and more agency, you can choose. [Martina: Yes]
So that's one piece of this.
And then the second piece, which I think is, is incredibly important, as you mentioned, we're coming up on a huge election year globally for democracies. AI is absolutely at play.
And I just heard a term, I'd never heard this term until a couple of weeks ago, provenance for, images so you can see in the metadata. [Martina: Yes] Well, you can already kind of see it in the metadata, but it's, it's tools built so you can see exactly where that photo was taken, when and how it's been edited and by whom.
And it allows you to see, am I looking at something that was taken and by a Getty photographer and unedited? Or am I looking at something that's been through 700 filters and adjusted and changed? So you can at least tell what's happened. It sort of highlights what you're talking about, which is there are all of these different people working on it, whether it's making sure that photos have this attribution, whether it's working on real ID online, whether it's new options for social media.
This is all happening everywhere. And Project Liberty is a player in this. That's sort of my big takeaway from this conversation.
Martina: For sure. Yes, absolutely. I think it's not just the technology that's being, y’know, UI digital I.D. The U. S. Government is working on something like that. So even, you know, government sources have started to understand that this is something that actually needs to be looked at at the government level and introduced at that level with the necessary regulation and safeguards and understanding of the requirements around the standards for it.
We don't want to have, again, like, all, everyone creating different digital IDs. There should be, like we just earlier said, like, one, certified digital ID, which is like the passport equivalent, which you then use, and then you could filter what kind of information from that is necessary to pass whatever websites or apps that you need to have some of it may just be your age, or just be like a location, or just your financial data, but not nothing else.
Hopefully the, the, on the receiving end as user, you will have much more certainty about where, where the provenance of the information comes from the, the, the original content and people, whether it's a person you're talking to, or a bot, right, or an AI generated sort of agent.
Niki: Right. This is really about protecting the things we care about, right?
Privacy, identity, sanity, wellness, democracy, these are things I care about that are fraying under the current system.
Martina: Yeah. And like the, the problem I think we are seeing right now is, when we have all these technologies, AI, the generative AI generating all this information and content, the question is to what end?
What is it trying to optimize for, right? That is, I think, a very important fundamental question that we're also dealing with in our research part, which is, how do we build ethics into the technology?
Of course, we want the latest technology. We all want it. We need it. We, y’know, there's massive benefits to society, to science, to health and wellbeing, and all of those things. But at the same time, we do need a different approach this time around. ‘Cause in the last iteration, the technology was built simply by technologists and was optimized for ad revenue. We want to build a different world where. We're optimizing for society and a better society and not, not the ad revenue.
Niki: This leads to how I came across Project Liberty in the first place, which is just before you began, but there was a conference a year ago that I was on a stage, and I said, because I've worked in big tech for and I said, “I don't think that those companies intended to have these externalities. They were built around, sure, you could have people pay for Google searches, but that means everybody can't use Google search, right? It was meant to create free products. In hindsight, they're not free. There is a cost.”
And so, I think it was not from a place of malintent, but it has ended up years later with all of these problems that were not anticipated.
And so, that's the opportunity here, is as we look to this new, I think, inevitable shift of power from a few to many, if we're really intentional about that, we can create a better internet swiftly, I think, if enough people participate that gives people more of that power back. And, and again, I don't think it was intended to be evil. At all. It just sort of evolved in ways that have caused enormous harm.
People are not really trapped. There are options. And so, I guess, I'd end with asking you for a call to action. You already said that you are partnering with academic institutions. You're doing research. You're doing public opinion studies. You're working with MeWe, which is a social media, kind of experiment or app, that uses the DSNP protocol.
If you had one call to action for people listening, what would it be?
Martina: Well, I would say it's partner with us! Partner to, to bring this, this future to, to reality in a quicker way, right? We, we all want it. I think our children want it and need it.
I think the, the cause is there. We, we have a real purpose for the work that we're doing. I think many people, many parents, feel the same way. Many people see that this is not a sustainable way forward.
The simple call for action for us is come join us and, and partner with us.
And, you know, there's different ways to do that. If you're a developer, you can join us around developing these new apps and these new tools, right? Using our protocol or, y’know our, or our tools more generally. If you're a policymaker, come and help us shape policies and regulation that help both building the innovation but also the guardrails and, y’know, for NGOs and other civil society organizations, there's so much that we need to do to include their voice in what we're building, what we're doing.
So, there's many, many ways to, to get involved, but the important thing is to take the first step, right? Otherwise, there's no, no change.
Niki: That's right. And if a lot of people take one first step, I think we do get more toward this because you get momentum.
So Martina, thank you so much for taking the time. [Martina: Thank you so much!] I know you're overseas, and-
Martina: Yes, this has been great to chat. Thank you so much.
Niki: On our next episode, I’m joined in the studio by Sheetal Patel, Assistant Director of the CIA for the Transnational and Technology Mission Center. It’s a mouthful, I know, but join me in geeking out about having a spy on the podcast!
The CIA is hiring in tech, people! And after seeing her speak this year at SXSW, she was on my wishlist for Tech’ed Up this year.