This story is over 5 years old.


Chatting with Reddit Co-Founder Alexis Ohanian about Corgis and Internet Freedom

It turns out he's really into internet freedom and corgi dogs.

Alex Ohanian standing in front of Lorde Ford.

Alexis Ohanian is a lot taller than I expected him to be, because for whatever reason I presume internet innovators to be of average or below average height—and whether it was deliberate or the result of some cosmic, happy accident, he also wears upvote-orange and downvote-blue checkered shirts.Ohanian, a co-founder of Reddit who’s also a notable internet freedom activist, stopped by the University of Waterloo last Friday as part of his 77-stop university and college campus tour. Ohanian is traveling the continent to speak with students, while promoting his new book about how the internet can change the world without the help of existing powers: Without Their Permission. Besides telling his back story and offering advice during his hour-long talk, Alexis also made an effort to appeal to the crowd by describing Waterloo as a cutting-edge place for research and startups (which is why it's one of his few Canadian stops), making a Rob Ford joke, and poking fun at the University of Toronto. I got a few minutes to sit down and talk with him about open internet, the TPP, Reddit and Aaron Swartz after he got off stage and just before he started signing books.


VICE: You've been very outspoken about internet freedom. But it feels like every couple of months, a new country or a new alliance is trying to pass a bill that will somehow censor the web. The newest iteration of that is the TPP—a twelve-country alliance to enforce American intellectual property ideals. What do you think about the TPP?
Alexis: It's ridiculous. The Trans-Pacific Partnership basically wants to strong-arm absurd intellectual property requirements among, what? A dozen nations? And it's all done behind closed-doors, without any public discussion, without any anything. It has the potential to stifle freedom of speech, it has the potential to curb innovation… Something as global and powerful as the open internet getting ham-fisted by undemocratic treatment, like we’re seeing from these closed-door meetings, is incredibly infuriating.

Wikileaks got a hold of one of the early drafts and the EFF has a really good download on all the things that are wrong with it. But it's not gonna go away. SOPA/PIPA was a very, very successful defeat thanks to millions of people who got together and called their reps and centers. ACTA in Europe was another amazing example… But until we have enough people in power who understand this technology, this is going to be an issue, because until then, the lobbyists will still win.

Do you think the TPP is the biggest threat to the open internet right now?
That's a big one. Unless I've been living under a bus for the last few days, it looks like whatever ruling we're going to get on net neutrality is going to be depressing in some way, shape or form. The Internet works because, technologically, all things are created equal, and cable companies want to make our Internet work like our cable TV because they can make more money from it. But from a technological standpoint, it makes no sense whatsoever and it breaks the free market of ideas that is the Internet. Like when Yahoo's default search and Google costs $10 more a month…


Yet right now, there's a stay-at-home dad in Pennsylvania working an [“anonymized”] search engine called Duck Duck Go, which is building a viable competitor to Google. I want to live in a world where a stay-at-home dad in Valley Forge, PA, can build a viable competitor to one of the most powerful companies in the world because that's where innovation comes from and that's a great world because we get better stuff out of it. And all that is under threat if we lose net neutrality.

How many hours do you spend on Reddit, and what's your favourite subreddit?
I try not to spend more than an hour a day… The MyLittleWarHammer subreddit is amazing even though I'm not a part of that community, so I don't understand it. ChangeMyView is one of my favourite new ones. It's a community of people spinning things they feel about the world. Like, “The drinking age should be 15, change my view.” And then other people submit the best arguments against their viewpoint to sort of win them over. So it's essentially kind of a debate forum, so yeah, it's very intriguing. And then there's always /r/corgi. Those dogs… I can't believe that they exist, they're amazing.

Corgis: how do they work? via Flickr.

Does the size and influence of Reddit ever scare you?
Yeah… I can assure you that Steve and I started this thing in a little apartment just trying to live—we wanted to live like college students as long as we could. The goal was to make something people want, then figure out the rest later. To see where it's at now… To see there are entire communities like /r/Mexico… Almost all of it's in Spanish, and they talk about everything from sports to politics to funny jokes that people who are part of the /r/Mexico community think are funny—to see that entire ecosystem evolve from a platform that just started with two kids in an apartment is unbelievable.


We’re still figuring out this whole social media thing, right? From my perspective, it's still hard to take notice of it, to really take account of it all, because we're still in the middle of it. We're still figuring it all out.

There's been a couple of controversial subreddits, some of them have been banned, and we were just talking about an open internet. Do you think openness and censorship—like removing controversial subreddits—are compatible?
Oh, absolutely. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. Like I said, all things are created equal. You have the openness to innovate without permission. If you have a good idea, you post it up there. That does not ignore law. There's a common misconception that the internet is a lawless place—it's anything but. There are laws that we have written that punish bad behaviour, which is what laws are supposed to do.

Where's the line for you?
The line for me? The line for me is the U.S., the way that we've handled things has always been: “If it is legal according to U.S. law, then it is okay.” Maybe offensive, and it sucks [to read offensive content, but if it’s legal we’re okay with it]. I mean, there are subreddits full of people denying the Armenian Genocide, and I hate seeing them. Those are my relatives who died and they're denying it, but that's the decision we made. And I've seen various cross-nations… France is trying to pass a law to make it illegal to deny the genocide, which I'm not actually even a big fan of because I don't… Whatever, it's a personal thing. But yeah, it's in accord with a U.S. law.


Aaron Swartz, another Reddit co-founder, was a major activist in the fight against SOPA and PIPA, and he was certainly a fan of keeping the net neutral… Were you in contact with Aaron shortly before his death?
No. I hadn't spoken to him in years, unfortunately.

What impact did his death have on you then, if any?
It wasn't the first time suicide had been a part of my life… Nothing about it ever makes sense… We’ll see what happens with Aaron's Law [a reform of the computer fraud and abuse act proposed in Aaron’s name]. To see something like Aaron's Law pass is something that is real, that is a clear impact. It's not just” “Hey, more people are talking about this or thinking about this issue.” It's like: “Look, we actually did something as a result.” I’m forever the entrepreneur; I want to be more results-driven because I want to be able to see that this is successful.

When did you lose touch with Aaron? Was it when he left Reddit?
Probably the month or so after? It was clear that he hadn't really been interested in working for a while. He was working on a book about child development and a bunch of other things, and we went our separate ways. I get caught up in life stuff and I'm never the most proactive with any of the people around me—we worked together for a few months but we had never been that close, and, you know. We moved. Life happened.


Reddit Saved This Girl from Her Abusive Boyfriend

Aaron Swartz's Tragic Battle with Copyright