Freedom for Phones — and Their Owners

Brian Fung

Derek Khanna was drummed out of the House GOP’s internal policy shop last year over a memo he wrote lambasting copyright orthodoxy. (He called the existing legal regime “a form of corporate welfare” that stifles innovation and protects the biggest companies.) But he quickly found a new role. Last month, Khanna led a wildly successful White House petition to keep cell-phone unlocking—releasing a device from one wireless carrier to port it to another—legal. Within weeks, the petition received support from the White House, the Federal Communications Commission, and lawmakers working on cell-phone legislation. Khanna now has an army of online allies. Following are edited excerpts of his chat with NationalJournal.

NJ How did you get involved in that memo at the Republican Study Committee?

KHANNA Normally, the process was that you submit a document and the policy director reads it, edits it, approves it, and you’re done. In my case, I wanted to have more perspective. I had some of the policy staffers take a look at it. And then when our policy director, Brad Watson, signed off, I insisted that our executive director, Paul Teller, also read it. [Then] I was given permission to send it out to everybody. But the actual public dissemination of the document was not done by me; it was actually done by the RSC. They chose to put it online, and then 24 hours later, they chose to take it off-line.

NJ Were you expecting the backlash?

KHANNA The RSC is not the type of place that’s scared of a fight. I told the office it would be controversial. I explained the specific groups who would be against this, and the groups that would be for this. I tried my best to give the lay of the land. Teller said, “Are there conservative groups that are going to support it?” I said yes. And he said, “Are there conservative members that are going to support it?” I said yes. And those things are even more true now.

NJ Where does the Republican Party stand on technology?

KHANNA Congress is kind of operating on autopilot. And they aren’t serious about technology. Until they take on technology as strongly as they talk about “Obamacare” or energy issues, we’re going to have laws that are quite far behind the times and that inhibit innovation.

NJ How can the GOP resolve the tension between loyalty to business and belief in free markets?

KHANNA Many political people don’t recognize that simply bringing in the big businesses and listening to their perspective does not lead to the most free-market policies. You also need to extrapolate the perspective of companies that don’t exist yet. We don’t have a lobbyist for the future. But that’s kind of what you need.

NJ Did you have a strategy for the unlocking petition?

KHANNA At first, I tried to work within the system. I reached out to as many members of Congress as I still had relationships with. When [that] didn’t work, the next step was, “Let’s mount a public campaign. Let’s see how big we can make this. And then I can go back to Congress and try to work within the system again.”

NJ Why did your petition succeed where so many others failed?

KHANNA It’s an issue that engages people on the left and on the right. And it really did strike a chord in the tech community, which generally believes they should be able to do what they want with their own technology. Many of them are more concerned with the issue of jail-breaking [allowing users to tinker with a device in ways the maker didn’t intend], but this is an issue that is very similar. There are 23 million jail-broken devices, so that means that there are 23 million felons in this country. The more you explain this to people, the more they agree with you that the laws are patently absurd.

NJ What do you think about Aaron Swartz, the activist who killed himself after he was charged with copyright theft for distributing academic articles?

KHANNA I didn’t know Aaron, so I’ve been careful about weighing in. That said, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is clearly problematic. This prosecution was an example of how insidious laws are that are seldom enforced but could be enforced against us all.

NJ You had to leave the system in order to change it.

KHANNA When I worked in the RSC, I was able to affect policy on a day-to-day basis. But on the technology front, I have been a lot more effective outside the system. And it’s partially because you’re able to work with a groundswell of the digital generation—Redditors and other people in the online community who are engaged in these issues. Congress doesn’t see these people as a natural constituency. But they will be.