Washington is known for its wonks and hired geeks, but "more nerds in office" would bring more tech savvy to Capitol Hill, says Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of social news website Reddit.
Startup investor and Internet freedom advocate Ohanian visited the nation's capital on Tuesday as part of a tour to promote his book "Without Their Permission," about the risks and false starts he faced starting Reddit. The website has 80 million unique users per month and is known as "the front page of the Internet" for its news feed about world events but also crazy cat photos.
Innovator Ohanian mixed and signed books on Tuesday with Hill staffers, local tech startups and other fans of the Internet at Sonoma restaurant on Capitol Hill, the Eighteenth Street Lounge in Dupont Circle and at George Washington University. Ohanian and his entourage drove around in a decked-out bus that read "harnessing the power of the Internet to make the world suck less." Following the event at George Washington University his team fired t-shirts into the crowd.
As a graduate of the University of Virginia and a season ticket holder of the Washington Redskins, Ohanian says he visits the D.C. area often, and has noticed Capitol Hill take "baby steps" on progressive tech policy since he advocated for Internet freedom in 2012 against the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act. The bills would have raised copyright restrictions to such a level that activists including Ohanian and companies including Google said the bills would have restricted free speech online. Public outcry pressured Congress to abandon the bills, which are also known as SOPA and PIPA.
Ohanian says he is optimistic that Congress is becoming more open-minded about how laws can pose a threat to the economic potential of the Internet.
"What is encouraging me the most is there are more and more staffers who are down, who get it," Ohanian says. "It's still not as big an agenda item for many of our elected officials."
Ohanian says he agrees with something told to him during the Internet freedom and copyright fight in 2012 by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, that "more nerds in office is what it's going to take," to increase understanding about how laws can affect the Internet.
The entertainment industry lobbied heavily to help create the copyright enforcement proposals of SOPA and PIPA, which offers an opportunity to the Republican Party to champion copyright rules that would encourage innovation and increase access to content, Ohanian says.
"It's something unfortunately a lot of the Left is not going to touch because of the lobbying money," Ohanian says. "Not a lot of Hollywood lobbyists are knocking on the doors of the GOP."
For Republicans to win more campaigns, Ohanian says the GOP should do more of its social media and online outreach in-house, as opposed to the outsourcing done by the 2012 presidential campaign of Mitt Romney.
"Speaking as a technologist, if I believe that technology is going to be a big part of my business or campaign I want to keep that expertise in house," Ohanian says. "If you get anybody else to do it they are not going to care about it as much."