Co-Founder of Reddit Talks Open Internet, Google Fiber and Net Neutrality
- Oct. 8, 2012
- 3 Comments
Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of the popular online social news website reddit, is leading an “Internet 2012” bus tour promoting the importance of maintaining open access to the Internet. Ohanian, who will be speaking Monday at the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Mo. spoke with PoliticalFiber.com reporter Michael Auchard about what he sees as threats to Internet freedom and transparency. Here are excerpts from the interview.
Can you explain “Open Internet” to those who may not be aware of the issue?
The Internet itself, technologically, works because it is an unfettered, unrestrictive system that’s not owned by anyone. Anyone with a connection can get on and share an idea with the world with this network. What we saw with those two bills, SOPA and PIPA, last year was a significant threat to that system, a threat to how that technology worked because of stupid legislation.
When we talk about Open Internet, we’re talking about preserving Internet freedom by essentially not screwing up the Internet. The reason this has been such a bi-partisan movement is, because whether you’re on the left or the right or somewhere in between, your concern is that all of the magic of the Internet – what makes that level playing field work – is threatened by either large government or large business. That’s generalizing it, but there’s a common ground here which is, “Don’t tread on the Internet, don’t screw this thing up,” this incredible vehicle, not just for economic growth, job creation, the process of political change and just the spreading of good ideas… and cat photos.
We’ve been able to take all the energy against SOPA and PIPA and direct it towards a number of things that have gone to promote these ideals that we’ve strived for which are in the Declaration of Internet Freedom, which was published on the Fourth of July. It’s a living document that’s still getting edited and (we’re) getting people to sign on to it.
We need to get to a place where a requirement for a candidate holding office in America requires understanding this issue and the importance of preserving Internet freedom. We saw some horrifying things from certain members of Congress and the Senate, particularly during the House Judiciary Committee meeting. Those C-SPAN videos and hearing elected officials talk so brazenly about how ignorant they were of the Internet and how little they cared about the effects the laws they were trying to write might have. That was extremely troubling to millions of Americans.
That was where this blueprint was first from. We want to get this to a point where it just becomes an accepted thing that any candidate running for office supports it and these ideals. So much of the magic of what makes the Internet work are these notions of people being able to help themselves. Whether you want to find a recipe for the best fried chicken, I’m sure you can go out and find it. If you want to learn French, there are some great tutorials there on YouTube that people have put together. Whether you want to learn a programing language that’s going to be the start of the next Facebook or reddit, you can do that. Those notions of personal liberty and whatnot are so well entrenched in the American founding principles that it’s been an easy sell.
Do you think it odd with the ubiquity of the Internet these days that people still need to be reminded that this is an issue?
For our generation, and I’m on the cusp, we remember the world before it. We remember going to the library and learning about the Battle of Antietam. We remember having to wonder how we would go about it. Today we can just go to a browser and fire up YouTube. The access is incredible. For those of us that are aware of it – it’s not truly generational – but for those of us who were a part of it, it’s pretty clear, and that’s where you get the millions of Americans supporting it. It’s not just tech founders on the coasts working on start-ups. It’s certainly not just Silicon Valley, in fact it’s Americans all over the country. We’re talking to farmers who can’t live without Internet freedom.
Really, when you look at it, it comes down to a handful of politicians who appear to be the ones who are out of touch with it. We haven’t needed to convince anyone we’ve met so far that the Internet and Internet freedom is an important thing. It’s really just making it clear to elected officials that this is something that is going to matter to your voters no matter where you are. No matter where your district is, it matters. There’s a handful of lobbyists that have been able to distort this debate and make it seem like there is anything but a unanimous consent from the American people. We’re letting Americans tell their story and it should be pretty conclusive.
Kansas City was recently named the first American city to have operational Google Fiber fiberhoods,. Was that a factor for including KC on the tour?
Well, there was certainly geography, the big thing we knew from the start is that we had the first presidential debates in Denver and the first vice-presidential debates in Danville, Kentucky. So, we figured, “Let’s draw a line and figure out all the cool places we can stop along the way.”
What’s so impressive and what’s so interesting about the Google Fiber project in Kansas City is that now Google Fiber in a lot of ways is now embarrassing some of the other Internet service providers in this country. Because right now, despite how America leads the world in Internet innovation, we have some of the worst connectivity and access, especially broadband, in the developed world. It’s a great example Google is setting because they’re showing it can get done; they’re going to be able to show the impact it’s going to have in these communities in Kansas City. Furthermore, it is an interesting example of the private sector coming in – and, you know, one of the interesting debates we’re hoping to hear about is, so all Americans agree that Internet freedom is important, let’s make sure all of our politicians are on the same page there. Once we get to that point we can start discussing the best way to get access to all Americans. Because we’re still not there. We’re not there in Brooklyn, where I live, and we’re not there across the country.
When we talk about what high-speed Internet can do to help change lives – whether it’s for entrepreneurs that want to help themselves or somebody struggling in an algebra class and wants to watch a great Khan Academy video., it’s a tremendous boom, economically as well as just through productivity. So, the Fiber project is going to be fascinating to watch. I really hope it sends a ripple effect to really shame, frankly, the other companies that have not stepped up their game and given us the access we demand and that we as Americans clearly, clearly need. Just think, if we’ve been able to accomplish this much with the kind of limited access we’ve had, just think of what the Internet economy could do if we actually had the kind of fiber connectivity that South Korea or Sweden have.
Is super high-speed Internet going to diminish the issue of net neutrality as this moves forward?
So long as we can make sure all links are created equal, so long as whoever’s laying down the tubes, so to speak, keeps a level playing field, all Americans win. I feel like the jargon twists and changes, but at the core of it, I need the Internet to always be a place where entrepreneurs can really believe that if they make a better search engine tomorrow and put it online they can win based on the merits of their search engine.
The Internet works because there isn’t a tiered system. The Internet works because someone can start a search engine tomorrow and if it’s better it can win. That’s not just for search engines, that’s for everything. That’s for music albums, that’s for films, that’s for cat photos. I always have to go back to the cat photos. But it’s true.
That’s what fuels so much of the innovation is that it’s so much of a level playing field. That idea of a meritocracy – that doesn’t exist offline. But, technologically it exists on an open Internet.
If you talk to any entrepreneur, that’s the reason we can take a risk and (spend) some of the best years of our lives working on something that may not work out, because we really believe we have a fair shot and if we can out innovate and we can out execute, we can flat out win. That’s the core of the American entrepreneurial spirit since forever. That’s the kind of thing that resonates so, so well with all Americans. It’s almost unfair because it’s such an easy sell to Americans; it’s just a matter of making sure our politicians hear it.
Since you co-founded reddit in 2005, has the Internet become more open or closed off, and what are some factors behind that?
There’s definitely a trend towards more openness. A lot of that has to do with when we started reddit, social media as a phrase did not exist. Back then people kept talking about the promise of the connected web, like “What will happen when we have a critical mass of people who are online doing stuff and invested in it?” And what we’ve seen with the emergence of reddit and other similar sites like Facebook and Twitter is that the power of what we now refer to as social media is significant.
The secondary benefits of that is that there are so many people now who are personally connected to a way the Internet is materially helping their lives and these great ideas spread a lot faster and a lot further than they ever did before. So (maybe) it’s someone now who can now sell their crafts on Etsy, where as they would have been very limited by the market. The technology was there 10 years ago to build Etsy, but the connectivity wasn’t there. Now (they) have the world, and there are people making their livings off of this. This isn’t someone who’s a developer. This isn’t someone who wants to be the next Mark Zuckerberg. This is someone who is helping themselves using this great platform and they are affected by it. Making that connection with that person, so they can see how this platform, the World Wide Web, materially benefits their lives is huge. That’s why it’s been trending this way and that’s why the backlash against SOPA and HIPA was so strong.
What kind of legislation would keep the Internet as open as what you’re saying?
One of the things I’ve personally been pushing for, and it’s not the sexiest thing, but software patents have done so much to stifle innovation. I’m saying this personally, because both reddit and the most recently Hipmunk …was most recently targeted by a patent troll.
These patent trolls essentially can legally extort start-ups like Hipmunk. Sometimes now they wait for us to announce that we’ve raised funding before they strike because they want to be able to extract as much money as possible. These people are leaches on the economy – they are taking money out of companies, taking focus away from executives that are busy trying to hire people in an economy where we can’t hire enough developers. This is a sector that has far too many job openings. We need more engineers to fill them. We have to be distracted by these clowns that basically go around saying, “We have this software patent. It is so vague and so ridiculous that it somehow applies to you. You can either try to fight this or just pay us a nice little settlement.” That’s the extortion money. And most of these start-ups have to, because they don’t have the legal resources and even if they did, the cost of trying to fight that is just untenable. Larger companies often just pay the bribe because it’s not really worth using all of their legal resources to fend off some stupid troll.
These trolls could be eliminated overnight if we simply abolished software patents. (Despite) the foresight of our founding fathers, code – that whole concept did not exist. The very nature of developing software makes it totally unsustainable for the patent system, because there’s prior art everywhere. We talk about standing on the shoulders of giants, which is a very apt cliché for this industry because the insanity of some of the things that manage to get software patents is fairly mind blowing for nearly all developers and that’s why you see such unanimous consent among the start-up community and among developers. This is a very, very broken issue. Far too much money and far too much attention are wasted on software patents and all of the collateral damage they create because of these trolls. Or, frankly, because the large companies that can afford them just hoard them. Like I said, it’s not exactly the sexiest thing, but it’s extremely important.
Photo provided by Reddit.