Billionaire Frank McCourt Pursues TikTok Acquisition

McCourt says his goal is to build “a new and better version of the internet, where individuals are respected.”

Photo of real estate billionaire Frank McCourt
Photo by Knight Foundation via CC BY-SA 2.0

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Real estate billionaire Frank McCourt wants to take on the mother of all TikTok challenges: Improving the internet.

On Wednesday, McCourt told Semafor that he’s cobbling together a bid to acquire TikTok. His goal? “A new and better version of the internet, where individuals are respected.” Somehow that seems harder than mastering the “Renegade” dance. 

McCourt of Public Opinion

McCourt’s goals may seem lofty — respect isn’t exactly a core value among internet denizens — but the man has a history of putting his money where his mouth is, and his words are hardly empty platitudes. In 2021, McCourt launched Project Liberty, a non-profit trying to develop a new internet infrastructure to free users from the grip of surveillance capitalism and the Big Tech platforms that thrive on it. He pledged $100 million to the project and established a pair of “digital governance” research institutions at Georgetown University and the Paris Institute of Political Studies. 

Those groups aided in developing a Decentralized Social Networking Protocol (DSNP), a blockchain-based system that would essentially shift the ownership of users’ personal data from social media companies back to individuals — allowing users to move freely among platforms without losing their built-up social networks. 

Twitter clones like Bluesky and Mastodon employ similar open-source infrastructure for their few million users, but bringing the DSNP philosophy to TikTok’s 170 million US users would mark a major and expensive push into the mainstream: 

  • A TikTok operating on a DSNP would grant users more ownership of their created content, allowing them to post and monetize videos on other platforms, and let them control what data they share and what kind of content the platform’s algorithm feeds them.
  • Most estimates peg the value of TikTok in any presumptive sale at around $100 billion, based on reports of $16 billion of revenue in 2023. However, TikTok parent company ByteDance is reportedly exploring avenues to sell the platform without its ultra-valuable recommendations algorithm, potentially knocking its value; of course, McCourt’s bid is predicated on replacing the entire algorithm.

Mr. TikTok Goes to Washington: McCourt’s offer isn’t the only chapter in TikTok’s sell-or-ban drama to unfurl this week. On Tuesday, a group of eight TikTok creators sued the US government over the new law, arguing a ban would violate their First Amendment rights. That echoes TikTok’s own legal defense — perhaps unsurprisingly, given that ByteDance is covering the group’s legal fees.