Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian has accomplished what virtually no one else in Washington is doing these days: bringing the political parties together on a controversial issue.
Democrats and Republicans have stepped up their support this year of Ohanian’s cause of keeping the Web free of government intervention. During their conventions, both sides touted a platform plank affirming Internet freedom.
And last week, President Obama stopped by Reddit for a surprise question-and-answer session, saying he would “fight hard to make sure the Internet remains the open forum for everybody.”
“Republicans want to keep the open Internet safe from big government. Democrats want to keep it safe from big corporations. I say we agree to agree and move ahead,” Ohanian said in an interview. “It was so successful because we literally had the Tea Party next to the MoveOn.org guys at these meetings. They don’t often hang out together.”
Ohanian’s inroads in Washington is a homecoming of sorts for the Columbia, Md., native. But the 29-year-old never intended to go into politics. In 2005, he co-founded Reddit.com, where users rank the most interesting content on the Web. A mere 18 months later, Ohanian sold the site to Conde Nast at a price tag that some speculate was between $10 million and $20 million. The site draws about 35 million users.
His introduction to high-stakes Beltway politics came this year when he and other executives from Silicon Valley stopped a pair of bills that would have held Web sites accountable if they host pirated content. The effort overcame fierce lobbying from powerful constituents, including the Chamber of Commerce and the Motion Picture Association of America.
These groups complained that Web companies were enabling pirated content, stealing billions of dollars from artists, authors and movie producers. A spokesman for the MPAA said that while the Web should not be encumbered by regulation, smart legislation is needed to crack down on piracy.
Ohanian’s views are more uncompromising. He said that the government should have no role in policing the Web. He added that if Hollywood made it easier for consumers to get the movies, music and electronic books they want, there would be no need to pirate content.
If the Web is left alone, it will solve the problem of piracy on its own, he says.
“If you’re really interested in artists’ rights, look at the Internet and look at all this great art” that it created, he said. Rhetoric that pits artists’ rights against the open Internet “infuriates me,” Ohanian said, because of the amount of content being funded by such online incubators as Kickstarter and Indiegogo.
His work this year on what was called the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, earned him allies on Capitol Hill.
“It’s been a pleasure to work with Alexis to stop SOPA and keep the Web open,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). “He brings to the table a deep knowledge of start-up culture and what makes the Internet tick and has a knack for bridging the gap between those worlds and government. And he got me onto Reddit.”
“Alexis is a technology innovator whose platform is changing the way people share, collaborate and affect policy change,” said another of Ohanian’s close collaborators, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). “Alexis and the Reddit community had a profound influence on the outcome” of the legislative debate this year.
Since leaving the day-to-day operation at Reddit in 2009, Ohanian’s projects have included the geek-stuff-for-charity site Breadpig and the online travel service Hipmunk. He also launched a bus tour to highlight the importance of Internet freedom to the American economy.
The groundswell of support for Ohanian surprised some traditional lobbyists in Washington. But it was obvious to Ohanian, who says nearly everyone wants the Internet to be a free and open place.
“The Internet represents so much of the awesomeness this country was founded on,” he said. “This is not a fight between Silicon Valley and Hollywood.”