The Internet 2012 Bus tour pulled into the gateway city of St. Louis on Tuesday spreading the message of an open and free Internet–and highlighting tech startups along the way who are taking advantage of all that the web has to offer.
The tour launched last week in Denver, home of the first presidential debate, and concludes Thursday night in Danville, Ky., when Vice President Joe Biden and GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan square off.
The bus tour is the brainchild of Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian and was executed by Reddit general manager Erik Martin. Ohanian rose to greater national prominence last year as one of the leading tech voices fighting against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA.)
After listening to him speak in St. Louis, it’s clear that Ohanian is an evangelist, for both Internet freedom and the start-up community.
Those themes were interwoven in both of his St. Louis appearances; to students at an event sponsored by Washington University’s Tech Entrepreneurs, where Ohanian said his real motive was to convince every student in the room to join a start-up, and later at the T-Rex Downtown Incubator to an audience of local entrepreneurs.
We had a chance to talk to him after the last event in St. Louis.
Reddit and other companies have fought against laws that would damage their businesses. Are there any guidelines you would like to see written into law?
Ohanian admits that he would, “love to see linking as a freedom of speech. I would love to see the foundation of the Internet, these links, understood as another method of speech and one that I presume our founding fathers would have wanted as protected as the words that come out of our mouths.”
Eliminating software patents is another part of Ohanian’s pro-entrepreneurship agenda.
“I think our swagger as a country has always been tied to the spirit of entrepreneurship…One of the big things hampering start-ups today are software patents. Patents are supposed to encourage innovation but software patents do not because they are being hoarded by large companies or used to extort smaller ones.”
Whether lawmakers are up to speed on technology and related issues:
Ohanian wasn’t shy about sharing his view that many lawmakers who are deciding the fate of Internet freedom often don’t have an understanding of the technology. He did, however, single out some of the champions.
“Some of our best allies were the Senators and Representatives I met during my first trip to Washington. I went a week after I learned how serious PIPA and SOPA were. The best two meetings of that day were with Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), a member of the House Judiciary committee who famously said on C-SPAN, ‘bring in the nerds’ when lawmakers were ready to hear testimony from the tech community.
According to Ohanian, another “awesome” member was Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) who expressed his dislike of PIPA in a letter to colleagues.
Where the presidential candidates stand on Internet freedom:
Over the summer, President Barack Obama held an “Ask Me Anything” on a subreddit page created by someone not on the company’s payroll, Ohanian likes to add. The White House came out against SOPA/PIPA.
Mitt Romney has not yet done an “AMA” on Reddit, though he did state his disapproval of SOPA/PIPA during one of the Republican primary debates. The Independence Party candidate Gary Johnson joins Obama as having participated in an AMA.
What success for the Internet 2012 Bus tour looks like:
“We wanted to do one big thing: ride the bus from Denver to Danville. The thing we want to come out of this is the awareness, the storytelling. It’s going to be hard to quantify. We can look at YouTube views. We have a documentary crew with us that plans to make a feature-length film. I want to see lots of press around this. There are stars we’ve met and profiled–companies highlighted on each stop–that need to have a national audience. That are doing awesome stuff right now.”
What he sees as the future of Internet legislation:
He listed a number of victories that the open Internet movement can claim since last year. For example, supporters were successful in getting Internet freedom language in both party platforms at the conventions.
The Declaration of Internet Freedom–the group’s version of a Constitution which travels with the bus to each stop–has been signed by a growing list of Members of Congress, including Representative Darryl Issa (R-CA) and Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), whom Ohanian describes as having the “dream scenario” as a former tech entrepreneur.
What the open Internet movement wants from Washington:
He also cited the politicians he’s come to know since the SOPA/PIPA wars, including his home state Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY).
Ohanian mentioned “Geek Day,” an idea that was formulated during an event in Denver last week, as a next step.
Geek Day would be a “fly-in,” a lobbying term for getting supporters of an issue to Capitol Hill to meet with elected officials. Only this Geek Day would have a decidedly techie twist.
For example, Ohanian is considering crowdsourcing what the specific “asks” to elected officials might be that benefit an open Internet. Entrepreneurs could mobilize as a “flash mob” in DC or state capitals on a given day.
Ohanian believes they need to explain to politicians that a start-up is not a business. “There is huge potential for growth.” The potential is there to start a company, “with two people and grow it to hundreds in a few years with only the Internet and a few people.”
“It’s that possibility of ‘what if’ that so many of us fight for,” in the open Internet movement. “There’s no reason why the next Google couldn’t start in the T-Rex building,” here in St. Louis. Look at Dwalla in Des Moines or Groupon in Chicago.
Solving access to the Internet issues:
In his speech to students at Washington University, Ohanian raised access to the Internet as an important issue.
“We lead the world in this Internet innovation and we’ve done that despite having some of the worst access to the Internet. What I love about Google Fiber is they are shaming all of the companies here who said it can’t be done. I love that. It’s something plenty of us have talked about but I’m so happy someone is actually doing it. That fiber is blowing away anything in this country. So I think there is a role in the private sector.”
Citing his home borough of Brooklyn, NY, as an example, Ohanian said that large swaths of the country–from the heartland to urban areas, still lack Internet access.
“There’s no reason there couldn’t be more competition for Internet spectrum and it will require some government intervention” to free up that spectrum, he adds.
“To deny people that access is really unacceptable. The Internet itself is a public good, it’s ours, created by all of us.”
Joining the Reddit team on the bus tour are representatives from the Internet Association, the newly formed advocacy group of tech companies that includes Facebook, Amazon and Google, and successful starts-ups, such as Local Motors.
After hearing Ohanian weigh in on policy and business issues all night, one audience member asked the question on everyone’s mind:
What are his plans for public office?
Ohanian replied that he “won’t be running for office anytime soon.” Which sounds like a door is being left wide open.
Photos by Jennifer Moire.