Entering this enormous bus—draped like an American flag in red, white, and blue—is like going through rooms of a house. First you enter the cramped living room, then a small kitchen, with a sink and fridge on your right and a full bath on your left. The back dining room’s furnished with cushioned seats that wrap around a large, fold-up table.
Most importantly, there’s Wi-Fi and plenty of outlets, because people are using their laptops on that table. This isn’t an ordinary vehicle. It’s the Internet 2012 Bus, driving nearly 2,000 miles across America’s heartland during election season.
In 2008, the same vehicle was used by John McCain for his presidential run, dubbed the “Straight Talk Express.” Now, it’s been given a social media update, with crowdsourced support from the likes of Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, whose name, along with seven other prominent donors, is displayed on the side of the bus. And it’s being escorted by a Rally Fighter, a real-life Batmobile that holds the distinction of being the first car with Creative Commons-licensed designs openly available on the Internet.
They’re coming, perhaps to your hometown, to ensure you realize that the Internet is a political issue worth fighting for.
Behind the wheel, at least symbolically, is Alexis Ohanian, the tall, gregarious, and bright-eyed cofounder of Reddit, along with general manager Erik Martin. Their tremendously popular social news site, which hit 3.4 billion pageviews in August, has become a leader and rallying force in the fight for Internet rights.
Back in January, when Congress considered the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)—an anti-piracy bill that would allow sites to be censored if a visitor posted a link to illegal material—Ohanian personally warned members of Congress about the bill, proclaiming it would “break the Internet.” And Reddit was the first major site to promise to go dark Jan. 19 for what would become a massive, successful “strike” against SOPA, with thousands of sites following suit.
Noting the site’s reach and importance, President Obama even visited Reddit last month for its version of a digital town hall meeting, becoming the latest in a long line of politicians and celebrities to field questions and address concerns directly from users. With the Internet 2012 Bus, Ohanian and Martin are turning the tables, hitting the campaign trail in real life and bringing Reddit to your doorstep.
The spectre of SOPA looms large over the trip. The eight-day itinerary is packed with talks, panels, and tours of places with varied ties to the Internet and SOPA, which has become shorthand for any kind of bill that would censor or limit the Web.
“There are going to be more threats to the open Internet that are going to look far less obviously sinister than SOPA,” Ohanian told me as the bus geared up for its first stop—largely referring to lobbyists who represent companies that produce intellectual property, like the movie industry, who have influence in Washington and don’t have a great record when it comes to making sure the Internet stays open and free.
“It’s going to be this sort of death by a thousand cuts.”
That, more or less, is the reason why Reddit has hit the road. Unlike the charge against SOPA—a grand stand that included blackouts of major websites and countless calls to representatives in Congress—this campaign aims to inform voters about what’s at stake before it’s too late, and to inspire them not just to fight against a looming threat, but to stand up for Internet rights routinely.
“It’s a lot easier to be against something than for something,” Ohanian explained, “but that’s why we have to do this.”
Before the bus hit the road, TestPAC, a political action committee founded by redditors, tried to spark a movement to get Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to discuss Internet freedom at the first presidential debate at the University of Denver on Oct. 3. It didn’t work.
Small businesses, on the other hand, were mentioned 22 times between the two candidates. “It’s small business that creates the jobs in America,” Romney said. Obama bragged that he “lowered taxes for small businesses” 18 times.
That wasn’t lost on Ohanian and Martin, who, just six miles away, at a bar in downtown Denver called Katie Mullen’s, were hosting a debate-watching party for local redditors. The irony, of course, is that you can no longer separate small businesses and startups from the Internet or propose legislation for one without considering the other. That’s a fundamental issue that weighs heavily on the Internet 2012’s tour itinerary.
“Everywhere we’ll stop, we’ll get to have some cool conversations about the Internet, startups, and jobs,” Martin said the next morning, standing outside the bus before it first left Denver.
Indeed, the bus’s two dozen or so destinations are often small businesses, like Modular Robotics, a small factory that creates what literally is the building blocks for simple robots. Likewise, Martin and Ohanian will pull over several times to host panels on Internet startup companies and attend talks, most notably Iowa City’s Startup Weekend.
“For a lot of politicians, it’s really hard to grok that a company could start with one or two people, a little bit of money, like literally enough money to put a roof over their heads and food in their bellies, and within a few years could be valued at a billion dollars and be employing hundreds of people and changing the world,” said Ohanian, shown below speaking with activists, a few days later.
“That’s really hard to grok if you don’t understand the Internet startup economy. If you had laws in place that are impediments to that, all of a sudden you’re stifling so much potential innovation.”
Before going to the first of the trip’s panels, titled “The Internet + Politics: Why You Should Give A Shit,” the bus took a detour to the Foundry Group. A Boulder-based venture capital firm, Foundry invests early and often in the kinds of online startup companies Internet freedom is thought to promote. Ohanian and Martin wanted to meet with Ryan McIntyre, the company’s managing director.
After 11 folks from the bus piled into the Foundry Group’s sterile conference room, Martin asked McIntyre what the Internet had to do with American values.
“[The Web is] a fundamental mirror of core American traits,” he responded, his head covered with a mop of brown hair, giving him the look of an aging pop star.
“We’ve always had a frontier mentality, a pioneer mentality. Obviously we jealously guard our freedom of speech. You can’t argue against the Internet being a massive enabler of that.”
As he spoke, a documentary crew entered with quiet apologies, setting up across from McIntyre.
“See if you can get Erik, around the shoulder,” said one of the documentarians. Later, when McIntyre went long on an answer, that same documentarian interrupted him.
McIntyre, though, was unfazed. Ohanian went on to ask about what the Founding Fathers would have thought about the Internet.
“Ben Franklin made one of his businesses as a newspaper,” McIntyre answered. “He benefited from the printing press. You think of all the handbills passed around during the time of the American revolution; that was a sneakernet version of the Internet back then. They recognized the power of disseminating information freely and efficiently—”
“Pseudonymously,” Martin interjected.
“—Pseudonymously. To cause a revolution.”
McIntyre paused, looking at the documentary crew before bringing his gaze back to Ohanian and Martin and finishing his point.
“You know, openness and individuality, and the anti-hierarchical aspect of the Internet, have a lot of parallels with what we believe our core cultural values are in America,” he said.
As McIntrye finished his last answer, Martin flashed him a smile and stood to say goodbye. “We gotta run,” he said.
“Hopefully there’s something useable in that footage,” McIntyre said.
On the bus ride back that night, Ohanian reminded me he’s a self-proclaimed “startup guy.” He sold Reddit to Conde Nast in 2006 for somewhere between $10 and $20 million and has since started several smaller Web-related companies. He’s an investor too, not just the founder of Reddit but someone who’s started and a number of other sites since then.
“I’ve got my entrepreneur hat; I’ve got my investor hat,” he said. “But underneath them I’m just an American citizen,” he said, earnestly.
I mentioned how he often cited Reddit, the site that made him a millionaire, as a prime example of the kind of site that SOPA could have shuttered immediately.
“That was obviously an example that hit home with me,” Ohanian laughed, pausing momentarily and becoming a little more introspective.
“SOPA would have crushed startups,” he continued. “They would have had to sign on all kinds of legal costs and had lawyers at the ready. More frightening is that so many bright people who would have started the next Facebook or the next Reddit wouldn’t. They’d say, ‘Oh that’s not a business I want to get into. I don’t want to invest all that time and energy and hard work into being an entrepreneur. I’m just gonna get a job somewhere else, do some other thing.’
“And that’s the thing that really terrifies me. The things that couldn’t happen if the values of Internet freedom weren’t nurtured. I just don’t want to see any of those get wasted.”
Photos by Kevin Collier