Be the Change

Derek Khanna
Oct 31, 2013 · 9 min read

Millennials are both more idealistic than previous generations, but ironically they are also more jaded with the political process. This paradox is unfortunate but not surprising. The political process has failed them — our political class ignores young people, engages in deficit spending, and implements cronyist policies which cost young people jobs — but if this failure is pushing more young people out of the process then the predictable consequence is a death spiral as those voices will be increasingly even less represented. We can do better and as citizens we have an obligation to do better.

Young people must engage in the political process, but given the failure of the incumbent political apparatus, they should not feel shackled to the tools and ideas of the 20th century. Instead, let’s implement change with 21st century tools and ideas — either within the system, by working the system from the outside, or by running for office ourselves.

The success of 21st century tools and ideas is evident. A concerted digital movement can elect political leaders, like President Obama and Tea Party candidates, and can influence policy like we saw in SOPA/PIPA and the cell phone unlocking campaign.

Gandhi’s timeless words, “Be the change you want to see in the world” drive my political work. My story may be unique, but I hope the lessons can inform the paths others walk.

It was on 9/11 that I began to realize the importance of public service. I recognized that my contribution, my ability to give back to society, was premised upon doing something that I believed was in short-supply: learning policy, finding the solutions to real problems and eventually, using the levers of power to implement these solutions. It was a long-term oriented strategy.

Eleven years later, in 2012, I had acquired the tools and was in a position to act as a change agent. Then I was working for the House Republican Study Committee (RSC), an internal caucus of House Republicans that comes up with new policy ideas and analyzes legislation. My role was handling technology, oversight, and defense policy for 165 House Republicans. On a daily basis I tried to push the box in the right direction. Some of my contributions were pushing the RSC to be critical of our continued involvement in Afghanistan, killing American citizens without due process abroad and of privacy concerns with cybersecurity legislation.

Pushing the box internally for each of these issues was hard, and I made powerful enemies in the process, but it’s part of the job for someone trying to make an impact from the inside. When the democratic system listens to diverse voices for new ideas rather than only special interests, then the system can get by with the participants providing minimal challenge to the status quo. But when the system is completely haywire, as it is today, then each person in the political process who is aware of the problem has an enormous responsibility to push the box every single day.

I took this obligation very seriously.

I was asked to provide a series of recommendations for new policy ideas, and my list included a new balanced budget amendment proposal, patent reform, high-skilled immigration reform and copyright reform. I was tasked with writing an official report on copyright reform, given our realization that copyright policy has long been manipulated by special interests and cronyism.

We knew the report would be controversial, and therefore I was under strict orders not to share the report with anyone outside of our office. When working on major policy issues, not having access to peer review is dangerous, but I did as I was told. When the report was finished, I ensured that my bosses were all aware of how controversial this could be, saying, “This could be one of the most controversial things this office has done.”

When the RSC approved the report and posted it on their website, it gained significant attention online within hours and was endorsed by conservatives, entrepreneurs and especially millennials. The enthusiasm was nothing short of electric. People were excited at what this could mean not just for copyright but for a variety of other pro-innovation ideas. I worked late in the night working with Congressional offices that wanted to quickly ride this wave first with copyright reform legislation and then with patent legislation.

Incredibly, a whole world of new thinking suddenly opened up when people saw a green light for new and innovative ideas — ideas that didn’t have to be vetted by special interests. Unshackled, when people were told that new ideas were welcome, the response was overwhelming.

But then, special interests struck back — with a vengeance. Within 24 hours, the RSC decided to remove the report from their website, and I was informed that I would not be retained as a staffer. I was far from jaded, though. The swift response demonstrated to me that ideas really have power. Special interests saw me as a threat because the ideas and logic of the proposals resonated with average people and exposed the fissure between the ruling class versus the rest of America.

I flew to Silicon Valley and then spoke at the International Consumer Electronics Show to decompress on what had just happened. After a week, I resolved to double down on change rather than abdicate from trying to fix the system. My new question was: now on the outside, how could I most effectively change the system that I knew well?

The question was well-timed. In that month, the Librarian of Congress’ ruling went into effect that made unlocking your cellphone a crime. This technique, unlocking, changes settings on the phone to allow it to be used on another carrier. Making this act a crime, which carries a potential five-year prison sentence, was an obvious abuse of copyright law and symbolized the cronyism emblematic of Washington’s special interest-driven laws. This ruling was implemented to destroy competition in the wireless market and would logical implication was to increase costs for all consumers.

The solution was simple: restore the free market.

So I turned down several paid opportunities and decided to devote all my attention to spearheading an unpaid national campaign on this issue.

I was told it was crazy.

Never before had an online movement led to new legislation — so there was no playbook on how to succeed. Frankly, no one seemed to think that success was possible.

This ban was implemented at the behest of two of the top ten lobbying companies in D.C., and there was no corporate interest on the other side. In nearly every policy battle, there is no lobbyist for the future, fighting for innovation. This one-sided fight needed an advocate on the other side. But I was warned by friends and allies alike, run, don’t walk, away from this battle.

Despite this feedback from the political class, I knew I could win this battle if I could come up with the right strategy. And I was sure that fixing this problem would cascade into future, and larger, policy issues (which is what I proposed in BoingBoing).

The campaign started slow, but over time our unpaid, grassroots, digital movement began to gain momentum after I wrote dozens of articles for countless media outlets. I turned to the media, but had no PR expertise or PR firm with the right connections. Then I spent hours personally lobbying organizations and Congressional Members to join our coalition.

Most organizations said no. All Congressional Members said no.

The frustrating thing was, no matter how hard we pushed and campaigned on this issue, we could never find anyone who would defend the status quo — everyone recognized that the situation was ridiculous. The lobbyists who had spent millions to implement this policy — like a deer in the headlights — were stunned into silence when challenged.

So, confident that right had power over might, we turned to the tools of the 21st century. Our White House petition, created by entrepreneur and millennial Sina Khanifar, was the first to hit the new threshold for an official response: 100,000 signatures. We were worried that we wouldn’t hit it, but then the co-creator of the internet, Vint Cerf and new groups like the Tea Party Nation and Young Americans for Liberty started to engage — we knew that we would soon have the White House’s attention.

Then after being told no at every turn, something amazing happened — we began to win.

The White House responded to our petition by coming out against the decision of its own department to support unlocking (I’m unsure if this has ever happened before). The FCC came out in favor, and within hours legislation was introduced. In fact, no fewer than six bills were introduced. One piece of legislation has now passed Committee and is awaiting a full House and Senate vote.

The most amazing part of this story was that for a month it was unthinkable than anyone would do anything on this issue, since no one would touch it.

In one important meeting I was interrupted by hecklers with taunts including, “You’re a Marxist,” when I talked about personal freedom and the Constitution. But over time, with the demonstration of the movement, it became politically toxic to defend the Beltway’s status quo, which could lead to a potential five year jail sentence for Americans unlocking their phones. After the petition, a committee staffer told me, “We had no choice anymore. You forced our hand.”

In this campaign we learned the most important lesson: with the right strategy and coalition, the impossible can become inevitable.

This campaign proved that a smart campaign on strategic issues can change policy. It can both stop bad policy and also enact good policy, which is significantly harder. In 2012, a mass movement stopped SOPA/PIPA, and today a mass movement is implementing legislation on unlocking.

With SOPA and phone unlocking, the industry had the money, the lobbyists and the organization. But we, the digital generation, are the trump card. We won by playing it.

The modus operandi of Washington, DC, is to allow SOPA/PIPA and banning phone unlocking to happen without challenge because it’s perceived as inevitable. The interests behind it are too powerful. To Washington, a policy perspective without lobbyists and special interests is one that doesn’t exist.

We cannot expect technology companies to represent the voice of innovation in Washington — they won’t. It is up to us to stand up for innovation, personal freedom and the free market against cronyism. In the words of Mario Savio:

“There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

This is precisely why we need more Millenials to engage in the process; who aren’t afraid to fight controversial battles against cronyism; who have the courage to fight to win; because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones that do.

It is a unique form of courage which is half crazy and half naive that ultimately upends the tidy plans of the powerful.

As Robert F. Kennedy reminded us, “ Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”

Let’s not give Washington a choice. Let us force their hand. We can each be RFK’s “tiny ripple of hope.” If Washington won’t change, we can be the change. It’s up to us to make sure that these historic protests were not merely a historical aberration. Millennials must be the change agents for the world we want to see.

DEREK KHANNA is a Yale Law Visiting Fellow at the Information Society Project. He was previously a congressional staffer for the House Republican Study Committee and Senator Scott Brown (R-MA). Derek has spoken at the Consumer Electronics Show and South By Southwest and has testified before Congress. He spearheaded the successful cellphone unlocking campaign and he writes about issues at the intersection of government and technology.

Politics and Policy

Place for thoughtful pieces and discussion on policy issues

Derek Khanna

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Yale Law Fellow, Columnist & Policy Expert. I focus upon tech & policy. Help my fight on phone unlocking @DerekKhanna

Politics and Policy

Place for thoughtful pieces and discussion on policy issues

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