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Former Hill Aide Rings Up a Second Chance

At just 25 years old, Derek Khanna has learned how quickly fortunes can change in Washington.

Khanna was beginning to make a name for himself in GOP circles after arriving in Washington just a few years ago with Sen. Scott P. Brown from his home state of Massachusetts. The photogenic son of Indian immigrants, he went on to serve as an aide to the House Republican Study Committee, where in November he wrote a memo on copyright policy questioning industry orthodoxy.

“Current copyright law does not merely distort some markets — rather it destroys entire markets,” Khanna wrote, joining the growing number of Republicans to ponder whether the party’s allegiance should remain with content providers over the tech sector.

The memo earned Khanna a mention from New York Times columnist David Brooks — and cost him his job soon after. Khanna experienced firsthand the influence the entertainment and publishing industries hold over copyright policy.

Khanna has since shown a gift for reinvention — and self-promotion — that should help him rise in a party eager for new faces. Now a visiting fellow at Yale Law School and law student at Georgetown University, he took to the Internet in January to help rally opposition to a federal rule change that bans consumers from unlocking their cellphones to switch wireless carriers.

“It was an unbelievable situation, a clear example of Congress not doing their job,” Khanna said. “It seemed like an issue I could get involved in.”

Khanna’s vocal campaign against the librarian of Congress’ decision helped raise the profile of the issue, and drew more than 114,000 signatures to a White House petition on the topic. The petition ultimately prompted both the Obama administration and a host of lawmakers to support the campaign to legalize cellphone unlocking.

“This is why I got into politics to begin with,” Khanna said. “We want laws that foster progress  . . .  . The locking issue is the most extreme case of technology laws being extremely outdated, and outlawing a whole class of technology without any debate or discussion.”

Questioning the wisdom of copyright law is not an uncommon position in Washington, but it remains rare in conservative circles. Khanna acknowledged that the Republican Party has ground to make up on tech issues, but he said he believes the party is a natural home for those techies who are skeptical of government involvement and excessive regulation. But unlike his new allies in the tech community, Khanna remains a conservative and believes the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act can be updated without a complete overhaul.

“There’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water,” he said.

Having won a key battle after just a few months of activism, Khanna is not done yet. He plans to pursue targeted changes of the DMCA to ensure technologies like those that help the deaf and blind access movies and books are not banned by copyright law.

“People always say the laws are going to be a step behind the technology,” Khanna said. “The question for Congress is, are the laws going to be five steps behind technology or one step? We may not be able to keep pace, but we can damn well try.”

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