Billionaire Frank McCourt's TikTok bid wins key backer as he looks past app's prized algorithm

Frank McCourt, civic entrepreneur, executive chairman of McCourt Global and founder of Project Liberty, speaks at The Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Festival in New York City, U.S., May 22, 2024. 

Andrew Kelly | Reuters

In the race to buy TikTok, billionaire Frank McCourt is pitching investors with a chance to create a new platform that gives users the ability to control their own data. 

“I don’t want to own TikTok,” he told reporters Thursday. “I don’t want to be the CEO of a social media platform. I want a new internet. A new improved alternative to what we have.”

McCourt’s move comes at a time when concerns about data privacy and child safety online have led to dozens of bills at the state level, and a bipartisan push to move federal legislation.

His pitch has drawn a key group: Parents whose children died after being influenced by social media or bullied on various platforms.

“Once Frank’s built the infrastructure and the public finds out that there’s a safer way to go, a more profitable way to go, then the people will start coming,” said Sam Chapman, who said his son Sammy died from a fentanyl overdose after buying drugs on Snapchat.

Chapman said McCourt’s vision would appeal to “hundreds of thousands of parents” who are seeking a safer internet for their kids. 

As a business executive and philanthropist, McCourt spent years advocating for a new internet in which a user’s data is owed by the user. He founded the non-profit Project Liberty to build a healthier version of social media. Project Liberty is working with Guggenheim Securities and law firm Kirkland & Ellis to buy the viral video platform.

McCourt said he has also been approached by a wide-ranging group of potential investors including pension funds, philanthropies, academics and private investors. 

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TikTok parent company ByteDance has repeatedly said they will not sell the app and sued to block a new law that would require it to either find a new buyer by early next year or be banned in the U.S.

McCourt said he thinks that if the courts rule against ByteDance, the company will sell. He said since his group is primarily interested in TikTok’s community, rather than the app’s powerful algorithm, they are a “non-threatening buyer.” 

“Our bet is they’re going to sell,” McCourt said. “Because remember, there’s a lot of American capital invested,” he said. “Are they just gonna wipe all that out?”

Another group looking to buy TikTok is led by former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who said earlier this year that he was building an investor group for a potential purchase.

When asked about rival bids, McCourt noted Mnuchin’s private equity firm has ties to funding from Saudi Arabia. 

“If you replace Chinese money with Saudi money, what’s been solved here?” McCourt said. “It’s the same exploitive model, scraping everybody’s data, aggregating it and making money and harming kids.”

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