Alexis Ohanian, the internet activist and creator of the news site and meme machine Reddit, is optimistic about net neutrality, despite the fact that, as he said tonight at a BuzzFeed Brews event, in conversation with BuzzFeed FWD editor Charlie Warzel, “it could use a mascot.”
Net neutrality, the idea that internet service providers should have to treat access to all sites equally, is currently subject to a 120-day public comment period held by the FCC. Currently, internet service providers can charge major traffic hogs — like Netflix — what Ohanian called an “extortion fee” for normal consumer access to their sites.
Ohanian is strongly associated with efforts to protect free and open internet access, particularly the successful web campaign to defeat the 2011 Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a bill that sought to vest the government with new powers to prevent online copyright infringement. In 2012, Ohanian embarked on a cross-country bus tour — coinciding with the presidential debates between President Obama and Mitt Romney — to promote open internet.
He attributed the relative ease of stopping SOPA to two reasons — first, there was a “clear and imminent threat” that sites like Google could rally behind: It would have given major content companies extraordinary and chilling powers over major sections of the internet. Second, according to Ohanian, SOPA was “bad legislation” to be stopped; ensuring that net neutrality remains a standard involves the much less graspable process of reclassifying ISPs as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934.
Still, despite the fact that net neutrality, as Ohanian put it, “could use a mascot,” he remained positive that a “nightmare scenario” would not come to pass, largely because the only major parties with a natural interest in ending the practice are a few giant corporations (companies, he admitted, that have “lots of lobbying money”).
Ohanian fretted that major internet companies like Google, which came out strongly against SOPA, have not been as vocal in their support of net neutrality. “Google, where art thou?” he asked facetiously. Google, which Ohanian noted is now an ISP, “is not looking out for the interest of the American people; they’re looking out for the interests of their shareholders.”
The danger here, as Ohanian said, is that small companies — the Googles and Netflixes of tomorrow — won’t have the capital to “win on the merits” of their technology, and that the entrenched tech powers won’t be challenged, or, as he said repeatedly, “disrupted.”
Ohanian, who is traveling to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Congress, forecasted a battle over internet freedom that is not going away any time soon: “This is never going to end. It’s all very threatening technology to a lot of industries. No one will look out for us other than ourselves.”