Alexis Ohanian and the Open Internet

On Tuesday this week I went downtown to hear Alexis Ohanian speak at the StartLouis monthly meetup. His presentation was part of the Internet 2012 bus tour – a trip from Colorado to Kentucky in which Ohanian and Reddit general manager Eric Martin are documenting stories about the economic success of small businesses and startups that rely heavily on an open internet for their existence.

Ohanian’s crusade comes on the heels of some very bad internet legislation, SOPA and PIPA, that met tremendous resistance from the internet community because they sought to apply stringent regulation to internet providers in the name of protecting intellectual property, specifically copyrighted material, from being distributed without permission on the internet. In ignorance lawmakers crafted bills that required costly, drastic, or impossible changes to the structure of the internet itself in (what many believe to be) a futile attempt to curb piracy – changes that would necessarily limit freedom and destroy the open exchange of ideas, goods, and services that has yielded the richest economic bounty in modern times.

Alexis spent well over an hour talking about the people he had met on his tour: people who are using the internet to be producers, not consumers. He talked about family farms that are using the internet to coordinate sales and design new livestock feed; craftmakers who sell their hand-worked wares on Etsy; a robotic toymaker in Colorado that exports to a ravenous market in Austria; an auto manufacturer that builds cars designed on the ineternet at a fraction of the cost and time that it takes traditional automotive manufacturers to bring a car to market. Each story was a fascinating and powerful example of individual initiative and voluntary cooperation, and the common factor, the glue between each story, was the open internet. Armed with these amazing stories, Alexis hopes to show lawmakers that internet regulation is a horrible idea because for what little good it might do, it will necessarily destroy the free flow of information on which these emerging businesses depend.

Perhaps more important than his message about internet freedom (and it is a very important message) is his message about the most effective means to achieve this end, and it is: innovate, don’t legislate. By creating value on the internet, and by demonstrating the powerful returns that open exchange and open information can produce, we can convince large corporations that it is in their best interest to participate and promote the free flow of information. We use the carrot, not the stick; persuasion, not force. (This is, incidentally, part of why I oppose Net Neutrality laws.)

Though the topic was heavy, the evening was peppered with a great deal of humor. In what may only be called a heroic attempt, Alexis attempted to draw a corallary between the open internet and “flabongos”.

And in what may be the only known recording of a room full of nerds singing a Nelly song, Alexis invited us to help him “drunk dial” a tour donor as a thank-you for their generous donation.

That the internet matters now, more than ever, cannot be doubted. The Internet 2012 message is important. Freedom, voluntary cooperation, and individual initiative are the foundations of a civial and prosperous society. And more importantly, they are the paths to self-realization. All of us can be awesome; the internet has given us a glimpse of what that can look like. Politicians talk a great deal about “fixing the economy”, especially now that we are so close to a presidential election, but the truth is that legislation and force and silver tongues full of promises don’t create wealth or jobs. We do. And it is our great moral, life-affirming obligation to support and protect our freedom to do so.