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BOOK EXCERPT: 'Without Their Permission' by Alexis Ohanian

Chapter 9

Dear Graduating Class of 2025

The problem with the future is that none of it’s guaranteed. I debated how best to illustrate my vision for 2025, but everything felt a bit forced until my brilliant editor sug- gested framing it as a commencement speech for someone just finishing college in 2025. Now, it feels rather presump- tuous to expect to be speaking at a college graduation, but I went along with it—after giving you nine chapters of opti- mism, I thought it might be important to give you a grim look at what could happen if we do nothing over the next decade or so.

Although it is only mid-May, the summer heat is suffo- cating. Alexis Ohanian lumbers over to the lectern, wearing the drab gray smock considered fashionable in this era of stifled creativity. He wipes the sweat from his brow, clears his throat, and speaks.

Dear Graduating Class of 2025: I owe you an apology. We screwed up the Internet, one of the world’s greatest innova- tions, and I’m truly sorry. Also, I’m really sorry about the cli- mate change. Perspective is everything, though. I mean, look at how much more we appreciate the parts of the Eastern Seaboard that aren’t underwater now. Besides, who really liked polar bears, anyway?

As for the Internet, we had a chance, with all the momen- tum we gained from pummeling SOPA and PIPA back in 2012, to educate our politicians about how important Internet freedom is to every single one of their constitu- ents. Every member of the House and Senate represented a digital district—it wasn’t a red or blue issue, but something that even the most divisive districts could agree on. Despite what you may’ve heard or read, it wasn’t just Silicon Valley that cared about this; it was all of America.

I hope you’ve read in your history books about Silicon Valley and all the burgeoning startup communities around the country at that time. We were one of the few sectors hir- ing back then; in fact, we couldn’t hire enough. Some of your parents might have even been part of that scene. Geez... hmm . . . this probably isn’t what you need to hear right now, given the bleak state of the economy you’re graduating into. Back in the day, software was eating the world, creating jobs and innovation, until we put protecting Mickey Mouse on a higher pedestal than protecting the free market. At least we’ve got that new 3-D version of Fast & Furious: Part XII. Seriously, they’re still trying to make 3-D a thing?

Anyhow, we were on the verge of major innovations across multiple industries. For one thing, your educational experi- ence might have been very different if you had had access to a free Internet, no matter where or even whether you went to college. Imagine being able to take free classes from the world’s best instructors any time you wanted. That was hap- pening. Nonprofits and for-profits alike were all engineer- ing better ways for anyone with an Internet connection to get an education. It looked like universal Internet access for all Americans was becoming a priority for our politicians. I used to be able to look a person in the eye and say if she wanted to learn to become a programmer and build the next reddit, she or he could go online right now and get started. It was the same way Steve Huffman had learned much of what he used to build reddit and hipmunk. There were no gatekeepers.

But I can’t say that today. To make matters worse, your tuition payments rose to levels that have left most of you deeply in debt. Keep that in mind as you toss those mortar- boards in the air. Or don’t—actually, now that I think about it, I don’t think you’re allowed to do that.

But even if meaningful employment isn’t on the horizon for many or even most of you, don’t worry! One of the perks of unemployment is all the free time you’ll have to surf the GoogleVerizonComcastNet©TM from your parents’ base- ment. There was a time when we had competition and a flat Internet, where all links were created equal. We all thought of it as a sort of public utility back then—so quaint. Today, of course, the only search engine most of us can afford to use always gives us erection pill ads as the first page of results.

In case you find yourselves wondering what life was like back then, you can always fire up Gmail. Google hasn’t had to update it in nearly a decade because there’s no reason to— no startup can compete with them because they just block that competitor’s website or bury them in litigation.

Now, I’m seeing some funny looks out there in the audi- ence. Yes, it’s true that bright young people like you used to build things all the time, and some of those projects turned into entrepreneurial endeavors—remarkable things that made the world suck less.

But I guess I’m really showing my age.

Just this morning I found a polite note in my Dropbox from the federal agent who investigated a “suspicious” photo I’d privately stored there from a family vacation. I’d done nothing wrong, of course, but he was just letting me know they had run a quick search. At least he left a note, right? Believe it or not, there was a time when we truly believed our digital storage was as private as our physical storage. Want to enter my home? Sure, get a warrant—same goes for my Dropbox. Those were the days. . . .

These days, of course, the government doesn’t need any due process to read our e-mail or search any of those for- merly private messaging services, because they decided that the Fourth Amendment applies only to physical mail. Hey, remember when we used to have post offices and mailboxes and letters? No? Ask your parents.

Seriously, people used to think that digital privacy was just as important as physical privacy. That concept might seem antiquated to you all now, but when I was your age, if someone was illegally opening your mail, it was customary to punch them in the throat.

I know it’s not polite to bring this up, but a little while after January 18, 2012, it seemed like our government would have a new level of accountability. Congress had abysmal approval ratings back then—worse than colonoscopies1—yet the Internet public realized that the connected web could give them leverage over even the richest and most entrenched lobbying groups. We had our congressional representatives and senators on speed dial. We would call them to check up on things and correct them when they did something bad— just as a good boss should. We paid their salaries, we hired and fired them—why shouldn’t we know what they’re up to? Social media, which gave us unprecedented access into the mundane lives of strangers, made us feel entitled to know what our elected officials were doing and helped us to hold them accountable. It even looked like we were going to develop better politicians in the process, as their attention became more focused on their voters than on the biggest donors to their campaigns. That was silly and naive of us.

Back when I finished my first book, Without Their Permis- sion, I really thought we were going to make the right deci- sions, too. The open Internet, as a platform, used to embody so many of the highest ideals of this country. Our Internet was filled with the true spirit of innovation, entrepreneur- ship, helping yourself as well as others, and the freedom to connect whenever you want—as well as the right to privacy when you don’t. We could have been real role models for the world. Our bad, guys.

Well, now I’ve got a flight back to Shanghai to catch. It’s a shame I had to move my company there, but the level and quantity of science, engineering, technology, and math talent over there made it an easy business decision. It’s sad because of how much I loved not only this country but also the freedom to innovate and tinker, which encouraged so many of us back then.

I’m truly sorry. We had a great opportunity, but we failed, and now it’s you all, our future, who are left with the con- sequences. The irony isn’t lost on me—we all let it happen without your permission.

Yikes. That would have been a terrible way to end this book. Let me try again.

Here’s how we could do better. . . .

Not only did we successfully defend the open Internet, we pushed for reforms that promoted innovation and equal access. After all, the American public had already spoken loud and clear about their support for Internet freedom. My friend Erik Martin and I saw it firsthand on the Internet 2012 Bus Tour. It really hit home early one morning in rural Richmond, Missouri, as we all feasted on breakfast courtesy of farmer Tom Parker and his family. Tom’s industry is one of the oldest in America—agriculture—and he confessed to checking his e-mail only three times a week. For me, a geek in Brooklyn, checking only three times in an hour seems low, but the Internet economy has already drastically changed the Parker family farm. More than 90 percent of Tom’s cus- tomers now come to him through the Internet, thanks to a Kansas City–based startup called AgLocal. It may have been the delicious second helping of eggs I’d just eaten, but it was there on that farm, with cows mooing in the background, that I realized just what an impact the Internet was having. Tom Parker gets it: “Putting family farms on a level playing field can only happen because the cost of sharing a story on the Internet is nothing.”2 We need to make sure his elected representatives get it, too.

That’s why we did the bus tour, and why our friends at NimbleBot filmed a documentary about the journey, Silicon Prairie: America’s New Internet Economy, which inspired others around the world to do the same for their own local Internet economies. We screened our film to a packed room at the Newseum in Washington, DC. The four sitting US represen- tatives (two Republicans and two Democrats) in attendance celebrated the film and what it stood for. It stood, of course, for progress. Whether we worry about big government or big business, let’s not allow either one of them to ruin one of mankind’s greatest innovations.

We’ll continue to triumph over misinformation, despite the best efforts of a few to stifle the freedom of the many. The onus is on all of us to educate each and every one of our elected officials. Should governments ever make the tragic decision that intellectual property is actual property and enforce strict penalties for blurring the distinction, most forms of online speech would become violations of IP law. Copying a digital file (such as a picture of a car) is not theft, because the original picture is still entirely intact; you just have two of them now. Stealing a car is theft, because the original car is not in the place it was before. Please refer, peo- ple, to this handy chart:

Our Internet-enabled computing devices are essentially copy machines that make all the ingenuity we see online possible. There is no viable technological alternative, because it’s the very nature of the platform. It’s the freedom inher- ent in the open Internet that has enabled and empowered Steve and me, Charles Best, Debby Guardino, Zach Anner, Zach Weinersmith, Lester Chambers, and countless others around the world. Less than ten years earlier, none of their achievements would have been possible. Imagine what just a decade more of Internet freedom will do.

That’s how fast innovation moves online—not just for startups, but also, as I’ve shown, in the fields of art, activ- ism, philanthropy, and politics. Every industry is getting swallowed up as code eats the world, and the result is a free and flat network. That’s why bridging the digital divide is so important—it’s part access and part education, and it’s all vital both to the health of our nations and to our Internet. A quality Internet connection is a public utility that should be accessible to all people, regardless of how much money they have and where they live. If we believe every American has a right to electricity, why would we withhold humanity’s greatest omnidirectional flow of information?

The Internet (called ARPANET back in its infancy) was born in America with a connection between two computers, one at UCLA and the other in Menlo Park, California. Yet today, “nineteen million Americans, many in rural areas... can’t get access to a high-speed connection at any price, it’s just not there. And for a third of all Americans...it’s just too expensive.”3 That’s research from Susan Crawford, law professor and technology expert, who has done tremendous          work bringing this reality to light and letting us know that we should all take action to give Americans the access they deserve. Children in twenty-first-century America shouldn’t have to go to McDonald’s to do their homework, yet that’s what they do.4 How else can we, the country that currently leads the world in the Internet industry (and there aren’t many industries we still dominate globally), continue to keep our competitive edge?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Those are the words of Thomas Jefferson with which I began chapter 2. Equality is an ideal we still strive for, but it is truly encapsulated in the technology of the World Wide Web. It’s fitting that those words were referenced in Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which is itself a glorious remix, sampling the Bible, the Gettysburg Address, “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” and even Shakespeare. It’s arguably the most famous speech of twentieth-century American history—but it’s also still under copyright, so you can’t watch it unless someone pays for it.

Originally, the length of copyright in the United States was fourteen years. This is far beyond what our Founding Fathers outlined. Thanks to lobbying by the entertainment industry—in the decades before we had a connected Inter- net public to combat such awful legislation—copyright now extends for the life of the author plus at least seventy years.5 Jefferson even proposed putting an explicit limit on copyright length into the Bill of Rights.6 T.J. recognized, even back then, how important it was to keep information as free as possible. If his amendment had made it into the final draft, then we could all freely watch Dr. King’s historic speech whenever we wanted. Instead, we still fight, not just for reasonable copyright reform but also to nurture great ideas before they’re bullied out of existence.

This entire book was made possible thanks to a free Inter- net. The first part was my own story of startup success, but my story is just one of many. I could very likely be writing a chapter in my next book (should I be so lucky) about you.7 It won’t be easy; you’ll need to develop your skills, work hard, and get a good dose of luck, but a computer, an Internet con- nection, and time are the only raw materials required.

The sad reality is that there are still too many people who don’t have access to the Internet, and if they do, they don’t have the skills to master it. This book cannot provide an Internet connection for you (believe me, if it could, it would), so I wrote the second part because I want you to save your money and not bother getting an MBA. This book is way cheaper.8 Beyond that, there are opportunities to learn from communities both online and off-line. We humans have been making connections for the purpose of learning and sharing information since the beginning of time. Whether you’re learning how to build your first Android application or sharing your thoughts about Twilight Sparkle,9 the Inter- net has made that a whole lot more efficient. Every day I encounter people who are using the Internet to pursue their dreams or to enrich their lives, but we need more of them.

By the way, being entrepreneurial is not limited to entrepre- neurs. The last part of this book is a testament to that. Charles Best, Debby Guardino, Zach Anner, Zach Weinersmith, Les- ter Chambers, and countless participants in the fight against SOPA and PIPA wouldn’t necessarily be thought of as tradi- tional entrepreneurs, but in spirit, they are undoubtedly entre- preneurial. They’ve found success because they could use this great equalizer—the open Internet—to spread their ideas, find their audiences, and ultimately surmount traditional barriers.

The open Internet is not a magic wand, but as a technol- ogy it has the potential to do tremendous things—to allow awesome people to reach their full potential. It is ultimately incumbent upon us, as builders and users of this platform, to see that it lives up to its own full potential. As we look, wide-eyed, into the future, let’s remember that the baggage of our society comes with us online. While the Internet as a technology is flat, as long as all links are equal, the world we live in is still full of inequality. Most of my now-lionized peers, the founders of the Internet’s original startups, are straight white young men. But as it turns out, the world is not full of only young straight white guys—in fact, far from it. What excites me so much about this technology is how it democratizes knowledge as well as distribution. But the sys- tem lives up to its full potential only if all of us have access and the skills to make the most out of it.

In sum, it’s not enough to just go forth and create without asking anyone’s permission, or to help others who are trying to do the same. Like the Internet itself, we are greater than just the sum of our parts. We’re not yet taking full advan- tage of all our parts, but we get closer every day, thanks to all the individuals and organizations striving toward it. Think of all the genius the world has missed out on simply because otherwise awesome people got bad “life lottery” tickets. It motivates me and many more to work toward building an open Internet, if for no other reason than it’s going to mean better stuff—better businesses and better nonprofits, better artists and better activists, and, yes, even better politicians. It’s going to enable awesome people to actually be awesome in a way that they couldn’t have been before.

Remember, this is just the beginning. Everything I’ve written about has happened only in the last decade, which is but a moment given the speed of innovation online. Imag- ine what this next decade will bring. Every child who grows up with an Internet connection and the skills to make the most of it is yet another potential founder, or artist, or activ- ist, or philanthropist, or...I don’t know, that’s just it: I can look her in the eyes and tell her that she doesn’t need to ask anyone’s permission to go learn about the printing press, or start publishing her photography, or rally her community to fix a dilapidated playground, or begin working on the next big thing. No, none of these things are going to be easy, but I’m certainly not going to be the one to tell her she can’t do them.

Let me put it this way: if the Industrial Revolution changed the world, the current revolution, powered by soft- ware and the Internet, is destined to do the same, but far more democratically. Instead of opening a factory, you need only open your laptop.

I hope you’re convinced. And more important, I trust you’ll do something good with that conviction. Spread the word, give this book to someone who needs to read it, put your politicians on notice, and make things people love.

Start. Please.What are you waiting for? Someone’s permission?


Excerpted from the book WITHOUT THEIR PERMISSION by Alexis Ohanian.  © 2013 by Alexis Ohanian.  Reprinted by permission of Business Plus.  All rights reserved.