The badge referred to the World of Warcraft guild he runs, which is composed of several venture capitalists, CEOs and other influential members of the Internet economy. An inside joke, perhaps, but it was a reflection of a man whose professional role is hard to define.
That's because he wears many, many hats. Ito is, among other things, general manager of international operations for Technorati, chairman of Six Apart Japan, founder and chief executive of venture capital firm Neoteny, and a board member of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the Creative Commons and the Open Source Initiative.
Perhaps that's why Ito is almost certainly one of the most frequent and far-flung travelers in the world. It may be impossible to go where he goes, but if he's on your IM buddy list, he often gives hints of where he is. And it can be exhausting just keeping up with that.
Recently, Ito stopped by CNET's bureau in the virtual world Second Life for a discussion about, among other things, the sharing economy, copyright and World of Warcraft.
Q: What do you do for a living?
Ito: I'm sort of part-time entrepreneur, VC and nonprofit board member. I do some writing, blogging, speaking and government policy work on the side.
What is it that ties everything you do together?
Ito: Well, there is a great disturbance in the way things should be that is caused by monopolies. Telcos for networking, Hollywood for content copyright, and Microsoft and others for software. These monopolies cause inefficiencies, which are also business opportunities. I fight against these monopolies by writing about them, participating in nonprofits and betting against them in venture businesses.
How do you work with these companies?
Ito: Well, there are certain people who probably see me as an enemy, but actually, many of these monopolies, on a personal basis, are supportive of change. It's often the inertia of the machine that causes them to be the way they are.
These monopolies behave differently in developing nations. Often, it is a few people in these monopolies that are causing the "holdup" of opening up. I try to take a fairly moderate stance. But I still end up getting called a communist by some and a "money-oriented businessman" by others.
What kind of positive change can Creative Commons make?
Ito: Creative Commons is focused mostly on trying to build a set of licenses with legal and technical robustness that will allow people to choose to make certain rights available to others. And Creative Commons represents a spectrum of rights, all the way from fully open to just allowing samples, for instance.
One of the keys for me, personally, is that Creative Commons is able to integrate into technology. For instance, Flickr, Google and Yahoo all recognize Creative Commons markup. And by getting it embedded into services and technology, we can allow the market to help spread the ability for people to choose to share rather than have to fight it all out in courtrooms and protests.
If we don't do anything, we may lose the ability to innovate, share, etc., and the Internet might look more like cable TV married to a phone system again in the future.
With the proliferation of CopyBot, copyright has become a big issue in Second Life recently. What do you think the role of copyright here can and/or should be?
Ito: I think it's great that Second Life allows people to use Creative Commons licenses and has a terms-of-service (agreement) that grants ownership of content to the citizens. I think it's a huge first step.
Right now, to get a screenshot cleared from Blizzard--which publishes World of Warcraft--for instance, I have to go through their legal department and sign an agreement that I would need a lawyer to review. But copyright is really complex, and we need to develop processes and practices that we'll only figure out by doing. And Second Life is a perfect place.