As another presidential election year unfolds, a familiar tapestry of political conflict is revealed: Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, and other candidates are gearing up to spar over the economy, health care, foreign policy, education, and other perennial political issues. But if Reddit and internet advocate Alexis Ohanian have their way, people won't just be talking about hot political topics, at least not in the context of the old buttoned-up ways of doing things. They'll be talking about the internet as the single most important tool in revitalizing a broken economy — a focused campaign issue in an election year filled with empty two-party rhetoric and posturing.
To get there, Ohanian and company plan to embark on a campaign-style bus tour, talking to people in America's heartland about "the power and promise of the open internet." Ohanian, the Reddit co-founder and self-proclaimed "internet cheerleader," has been one of the most outspoken advocates of open internet policies, and is currently writing a book called Without Your Permission: How the 21st Century will be Made, Not Managed. It's a tagline fit for a serial entrepreneur, focused on creation and innovation, and not someone taken with the bureaucracy of old industries and governments. Still, the existence of an "Internet campaign bus" is a tacit admission that the internet depends on aging infrastructure and the politics of real people.
"There's a broken meme about this being Silicon Valley versus Hollywood."
The bus tour is the latest effort in a series of internet advocacy measures taken by Ohanian, Reddit, and other big internet players in the past year, starting with opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). While SOPA was supported by the entertainment industry and its congressional cronies, its worst provisions — which would have fundamentally altered the structure of the internet — sparked a fierce backlash from internet advocates and users. The response included an unprecedented "SOPA blackout" in which Wikipedia, Reddit, Google, and others protested the proposed law with service outages and messaging. But Ohanian says that the latest effort is about more than SOPA: he says there's a "broken meme about this being Silicon Valley versus Hollywood." For Ohanian and his allies, an open internet is much broader than an effort to keep the entertainment lobby's copyright-obsessed hands out of the web: it's about the internet's "role as a massive engine for economic growth."
When I spoke to Ohanian about the effort to craft a Declaration of Internet Freedom in May, he was already pondering a bus tour — something he was audibly excited about as a next step in his open internet campaign. As part of the Declaration project, Ohanian and others planned to spread the word about internet freedom issues by creating internet communities, staging in-person "internet meetups," and using traditional advocacy tools like polling and petitioning. A bus tour wasn't a huge leap from the coalition's growing real-world efforts.
"Silicon Prairie is a thing."
The Internet 2012 bus will travel from the presidential debate in Denver, Colorado on October 3rd, to the vice presidential debate in Danville, Kentucky on October 11th — and the internet's role in the economy is a central topic. Ohanian tells me that "Silicon Prairie is a thing," and he plans to talk to a number of local startups and stage meetups across the campaign trail to discuss internet issues. While not all of the campaign stops between Denver and Danville have been decided on, internet companies will play a big role. Ohanian speaks at length about startups, and how the internet has enabled all kinds of different people to innovate. He mentions Ag Local, Airbnb, and even private sellers on Etsy — he says "this isn't just entrepreneurship, this is about Americans helping themselves by discovering hidden economies." It's clear that in this internet freedom agenda, the economy is a major pillar of discussion.
"Thanks to the open internet, people are learning marketable skills that are turning them from unemployed to gainfully employed."
"You've got people who are starting to learn things thanks to the open internet," Ohanian says, "and whether they're doing it because of Khan, or Code Academy, or whatever, they're learning marketable skills that are turning them from unemployed to gainfully employed. Tons of these stories are happening all over between Denver and Danville."
Ohanian and company plan to document the entire journey, and will have a camera crew on-board. He says that he wants to "let people from the internet speak for themselves," and that "the biggest thing is to simply be talking about it, to talk about it with friends and family and explain why it's an important issue to you and America." While he won't admit to any broader political ambitions, Ohanian continues to perfect his internet freedom elevator speech: he says "you don't have to go too far into the narrative to get people on board with an open internet." And with the Declaration of Internet Freedom's supporters, the recently-created Internet Defense League, and legions of politically-active Reddit users, his coalition is expanding.
"Things that are wrapped up in the open internet are so damn American," Ohanian says. "That's why we have groups like Cato and the Tea Party aligning with Move On and others. The reason it's happening is because all Americans, regardless of their political stripes, really care about it."