Reddit's Ohanian says the beauty of the Web is its lack of a power hierarchy
Ohanian, 29, became a visible spokesman in the fight against Web piracy bills
He says timing, location let him devote himself to the effort
Despite rumors, Ohanian says he has no desire to run for elected office
Alexis Ohanian is not the mayor of the Internet.
He was proclaimed as such by Forbes magazine and, obviously, there’s no such thing. But the man who’s become one of the most visible advocates for a free and open Web over the past year says that the very idea goes against the spirit of what he’s fighting for.
“The Internet has my axe, insofar as I can be helpful as a voice or a person on camera or someone at a protest,” the 29-year-old Ohanian, best known as a co-founder of social-sharing site Reddit, said via a deft “Lord of the Rings” reference.
“I will use it. But the reality is that the magic of the Internet is that there isn’t any hierarchy to it. It’s this flat connection of people where all links are created equal.”
Ohanian spoke with CNN shortly after giving a presentation at the South by Southwest Interactive festival here – one in which he shared stories from the Internet 2012 Bus Tour he and Reddit general manager Erik Martin launched during last year’s election season.
The tour, partially crowdfunded on Indiegogo, rolled from Colorado to Kentucky and highlighted individuals and businesses whose success has been impacted by an open Web.
They ranged from a rural family farmer who said he makes 90% of his money through Internet sales to two women who met via their virtual Etsy stores and eventually launched a brick-and-mortar jewelry shop together in St. Louis.
They’re feel-good stories, but also ones that roll into a narrative about how government controls on the Internet can be dangerous to freedom, job creation and other rights and goals, Ohanian said.
“When you can actually say, ‘There is a farmer in your district right now whose life has been changed – whose business has been transformed – because of the Internet economy …’ it becomes a lot more real,” he says.
Ohanian emerged as a vocal opponent of the Stop Online Piracy Act. Geared toward clamping down on Internet piracy, critics argued that the way it was written would have given the entertainment industry the ability to shutdown otherwise legitimate websites if it was found they were wrongly hosting copyrighted material.
With help from Web bigwigs like Google, Wikipedia and Facebook, opponents eventually killed SOPA and a similar piece of legislation in the Senate.
Ohanian, who also helped launch travel site Hipmunk and runs Breadpig, a site that gives all proceeds to social causes, said that like some of his other successes, his role was a matter of good timing.
“When I stepped away from Hipmunk, this fight became my focus. I had a lot of time to devote to it,” he said. “What really won the day was millions of people taking action.
“Where I fit into that mix was, I live in New York … when the media finally had to talk about it, I could get on the subway and spend literally the entire day meeting with every major news organization, being on TV.”
These days, he and others from the SOPA fight are setting their sights on another bill, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act. It’s designed to help authorities use Web tools to track criminals, but critics say it’s a “Big Brother” plan that strips Fourth Amendment privacy rights.
So, mayor of the Internet is out. But at his presentation Friday, Ohanian called on the audience to get active in politics. “We need more nerds in Congress,” he said.
And, last week, he shared on his social accounts a “rumor roundup” article from a tech blog that said Ohanian, himself, might be mulling a run for office. “No comment,” he cheekily wrote.
“Oh, it has popped into my mind,” he said. “Actually – and this is bad for the rumor roundup – I had registered (Web domain name) ‘ohanian2013’ … I talked to some people who have done it before and whom I trusted for council.”
But in the end, Ohanian (who, at 29, couldn’t shoot for the U.S. Senate for another year at any rate) said he thinks he can do more for the cause from where he sits now.
“I am having so much, I think, success in the private sector. It’s a cost-benefit analysis,” he said. “Why would I trade off the freedoms I have as a private-sector individual if I’m having as much, if not more, impact.”
Also, he joked, he’s not qualified to be a politician.
“I see the hypocrisy of going on stage and telling people we should have more geeks in office then not doing it myself,” he said. “But, you know what? By sheer virtue of the fact that I can acknowledge my own hypocrisy, I know I’m not capable of running for office.”