Alexis Ohanian: How I Got Washington to Listen to Start-ups
Every couple weeks, someone asks Alexis Ohanian when he's going to run for office. Recently, the idea has crept into Facebook posts and into comments on Reddit, the site he co-founded in 2005.
It's not unheard of for an entrepreneur to blaze a trail to Capitol Hill...but a 29-year-old start-up founder who loves video games and football, and who lacks government experience?
He's come a long way since November 2011.
At that time, a consortium of technology companies including Google and Facebook were seeding efforts to oppose proposed legislation aimed at strengthening copyright online. The bills aimed to prevent copyright violations, but would have done so at the server level, which Web companies feared would censor the spread of information on the Internet--and punish a broad range of websites. Now long laid to rest in the graveyard of failed bills, the proposals were known as the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, and its Senate companion, the Protect IP Act, or PIPA.
In mid November, Ohanian was working on the travel website Hipmunk and happened to be in Washington, D.C., doing publicity. He met a lobbyist for the Consumer Electronics Association, and was invited to join a tour of Silicon Valley companies meeting with members of Congress.
"That was where I had fateful meetings with Senator [Jerry] Moran and Representative [Jason] Chaffetz, those two in particular were on-point," Ohanian says. Chaffetz openly questioned the legislation--and if you followed the debates surrounding it last year, you'll remember him as the member of Congress who urged his peers before signing off on the Hollywood-backed copyright legislation to consult Silicon Valley. To, as he said at the time, "bring in the nerds."
Washington was a far cry from Silicon Valley. "I had never done that stuff before—I had to borrow a tie from my dad," Ohanian says.
Ohanian left Hipmunk to spread the gospel of free information and an open Internet full-time. He went on to wear that tie of his father's on national TV over and over again, becoming the preeminent voice of the free-Internet movement that arose out of "the nerds'"--a.k.a. Silicon Valley tech companies'-- frustrations with copyright legislation. He also went on to be called "the mayor of the Internet."
All that might make a humble tech entrepreneur's head swell. But Ohanian is vowing to continue his open-Web activism, on Capitol Hill and off. He told Inc. Friday he won't be running for office anytime soon.
"I see being in the private sector as being a tremendous asset," he says. "It's simple math, because as a private citizen I don't have to compromise on anything, and I can make this my one issue—and so far I've been having a ton of success."
He says he's discussed the gossip a couple times with an important mentor from the Washington, D.C., area: his father.
"If I had a job that I was in Washington, he would like it because he'd see me more often," Ohanian says. "But I tell him, 'If I can have more of an impact outside [of politics], why bother?'"
What's next in the fight, if not petitioning signatures for a ballot? Ohanian told a crowd of several hundred at South by Southwest Interactive that he's fighting a new cybersecurity bill, CISPA, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act. He urged SXSW attendees to call their representatives in Washington to oppose the legislation.
"It's still so early, but we saw what the Internet could do to stop bad things with SOPA and PIPA, now we are starting to see what the Internet can do to stop bad legislation," he says. "And there's hope that we'll soon also see what the Internet can do to start positive government work."
CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer
Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.