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Alexis Ohanian: net neutrality ‘continues to unite more Americans than divide them’

Alexis Ohanian: net neutrality ‘continues to unite more Americans than divide them’

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Alexis Ohanian

Reddit has been one of the most prominent companies in digital advocacy, organizing to defeat SOPA in 2012 and to defend net neutrality in 2014. As the internet rallies for today’s pro-net neutrality protest, Reddit has organized Ask Me Anything sessions around the issue, and the company announced in a blog post that it will be making the company’s first “official” trip to DC next month to meet with lawmakers.

“Net neutrality is not the best phrase.”

“The Reddit company just hasn’t been in a place to do it,” co-founder Alexis Ohanian said in an interview today with The Verge. The company, he says, has now staffed up its policy team for coordinated lobbying, building relationships with lawmakers to push the issues the company cares about, like net neutrality.

Ohanian has been particularly visible in that debate, putting “traffic advisory” ads around DC ahead of a crucial FCC vote in 2014, and organizing Reddit users around related issues. At the time, Ohanian said in an interview that net neutrality had a branding problem. “Net neutrality is not the best phrase,” he says today. “I’ve even talked with Tim [Wu], the guy who’s coined it.” 

“We’re basically stuck with it, that’s what we’ve got,” Ohanian says, but adds that “this product, net neutrality, is so damn good that it actually makes up for the fact that it’s not [branded well].”

Today, as part of the net neutrality “day of action” protest, sites around the internet are making displays of support — from spinning loading wheels to more personal notes. Reddit’s message is one of the more prominent: a pop-up homepage note asking visitors “to be the heroes we need.”

Reddit is asking visitors “to be the heroes we need”

Reddit’s push today is very reminiscent of its 2014 net neutrality protests, even as the Reddit community has changed in the past few years. Journalism and advocacy around net neutrality continue to be sent to the front page of the site, although it’s more recently become home to popular and vocal — and often offensive — pro-Trump groups like r/the_donald, which can seem more ambivalent about the current administration’s deregulatory agenda. (Ohanian declined to get into the sometimes close, and recently publicized, relationship between images on Reddit and the president’s Twitter account.)

But net neutrality is an issue that doesn’t have to fall into party lines, Ohanian says. “I think the biggest champions of net neutrality are the ones who feel it’s so important to allow that diversity of opinions,” he says. In the end, he argues, net neutrality “continues to unite more Americans than divide them.”

As for the effectiveness of today’s protest, Ohanian acknowledges that Trump-appointed FCC chairman Ajit Pai is “not an elected official” and “no one at the FCC is beholden to the will of the people.” Still, he says, “I am very long on our success in the long term.” On what’s next for him and the company, should the FCC do away with the rules as it’s expected to: “I am not even going to consider that as a possibility,” he says.