The future of Internet freedom is on wheels.
The Internet 2012 Bus Tour, led by entrepreneur and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian (@AlexisOhanian) and Reddit General Manager Erik Martin (@hueypriest), aims to bring the importance of Internet freedom back into the spotlight by visiting America’s heartland and sharing the stories of how citizens are using the Internet to transform their cities and their lives. More importantly, the tour is designed to send a clear message to lawmakers in both parties that the Open Internet helps people help themselves, and is vital to economic growth in America.
Ohanian, one of the most visible and vocal figures in the fight to defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) earlier this year, saw the tour as an opportunity to let American innovators speak for themselves.
“It’s a campaign-style tour, but unlike the Obama and the Romney buses, the Internet 2012 bus is going to be about the people outside the bus, not the ones inside of it,” he said.
How the Bus Got Rolling
The tour kicked off in Denver on October 3, and will culminate with a vice-presidential debate viewing party in Danville, Kentucky on October 11. “We didn’t have a really specific itinerary until we announced it,” Ohanian said. “We knew it was Denver to Danville. We figured the Internet would help us fill in the blanks, and it did.”
The bus will stop at business incubators, pubs and other popular local meeting spots, as well as the Kauffman Foundation, the world’s largest foundation devoted to entrepreneurship.
“There’s something about a campaign bus tour that really hit home what we’re trying to accomplish,” Ohanian said. “The Internet’s obviously not the candidate in this presidential election, but we want to make sure that these values of Internet freedom play a role with every candidate in every election in the U.S.”
The bus itself, interestingly enough, has a political past of its own: It was the same one used by John McCain in his presidential campaigns, and was more widely known as the Straight Talk Express.
Now, the bus has been transformed into a powerful symbol of Internet freedom. It’s half-red and half-blue, to illustrate that the Open Internet is a bipartisan issue, and is emblazoned with the Internet 2012 logo. The bus itself will be hard to miss as it rolls through America’s heartland, and organizers like Ohanian hope its larger-than-life presence will prompt locals to share photos, videos, and insights on their social networks.
“We’re using this as a way to showcase all of the people all over the heartland who love Internet freedom and are doing awesome stuff thanks to an open Internet, and letting them tell their story,” Ohanian said.
Sending A Message, Loud and Clear
Ohanian stressed the importance of sharing those stories not only with other voters across the country, but also with politicians. At the tour’s recent stop in Boulder, Ohanian encouraged supporters to organize a “national Geek day,” during which they schedule meetings with their representatives and senators in Washington. “It’s incredible what the Internet’s been able to do in terms of changing the discussion and raising awareness, but there’s more to do,” he said. “It’s just a matter of sending the message to Washington, and making sure that message is much louder than the one the lobbyists bring with their money.”
According to Ohanian, if politicians ignore that message, it could be detrimental to progress. “The thing that so many of us are so worried about if we don’t get this Internet freedom is a fear of what would not come to fruition,” he said. “That’s the nature of innovation and entrepreneurship; people doing things that have not been done before.”
The Internet: Helping People Help Themselves
The tour will showcase the people and companies that have been empowered by the Internet to create products and services that benefit themselves and their communities, whether it’s Hudl, a Nebraska-based company that builds athletic coaching software, or Local Motors, a company that uses the Internet to crowdsource production and design of automobiles, or any other venture made possible through the use of the Internet.
Ohanian refers to the idea of people helping themselves using the Internet as “permission-less innovation.” As he pointed out, the Internet allows innovators to just start building, and to share their ideas with a global audience more efficiently and effectively than ever before.
“The most powerful thing you have is when you’ve got evangelists, unpaid people, who really like what you’re doing, talking about it with the same passion and the same conviction that you are,” he said. “That’s when the magic starts happening.”
Be Your Own Batman
Social media has already played a tremendous role in the fight to defeat SOPA and PIPA, and Ohanian looks to leverage it throughout the Internet 2012 tour to continue spreading the message and give people all over the country a glimpse into the innovation happening in the heartland. Supporters are encouraged to tweet, retweet, share photos, and more importantly, share their insights and experiences with their networks.
According to Ohanian, a supporter with 50 Twitter followers is just as crucial to the fight for Internet freedom as someone with millions of followers. It’s about empowering your own network to keep the momentum going. Ohanian encourages supporters to fiercely defend their corner of the Internet. “We need to be the Batmen and Batwomen of our respective Gothams.”