In conversation with Ms. Mishi Choudhary, President at SFLC.in.
How and when did you feel the need to start SFLC.in? Was it based on a personal experience or did you simply see it as an existing gap?
I was working at the intersection of law, policy and technology in the United States and was impressed by the impact civil society could have on policy making and ensuring freedom in the domain of technology.
Such an organization was conspicuously absent in India, a technology giant. A legal services organization that had deep policy chops and ‘advocacy might’ is what I envisioned and here we are with SFLC.in.
Can you describe the nature of work done at SFLC.in?
SFLC.in works in the area of online civil liberties including, but not limited to, privacy, cyber security, network neutrality, access, free and open source software, intellectual property rights, free speech and expression, internet shutdowns, e-commerce and intermediary liability.
We bring together lawyers, technologists, economists, and journalists to make informed policies in an effort to protect freedom in the digital world. We actively advocate and encourage innovation and open access to knowledge, by helping developers create exceptional Free and Open Source Softwares, by protecting the privacy and civil liberties of citizens in the digital world by educating them and providing free legal advice/help to policy makers, enabling them to make informed and just decisions with the use and adoption of technology.
Can you please describe what a typical day at office is like?
I have a sharp-witted, driven, young team which keeps all of us on our toes. You will find diverse teams operating from different parts of the country and sometimes around the world, logging in and commenting at different times on multiple issues. Almost every day, a few lawyers can be found in different courts following or arguing legal matters, while others arguing in-house amongst different teams on draft legislations, research reports, frequently asked questions, etc.
We spend a lot of time on the phone coordinating with several parties from different geographical locations. Technologists are always working in tandem with others; building tools or answering technical questions.
Some of us are busy putting together events or meeting policy makers so that we can understand their points of view and make submissions on various topics.
A lot of energy, arguments, and research fuelled by coffee, tea, nimbu paani and lots of food ordered from all places that catch our fancy is what it ultimately looks like!
Any achievement in your career which you feel particularly proud of? What was the key learning experience derived from it?
That will have to be TRAI’s order on differential pricing, disallowing free basics by Facebook.
We were one of the lead counsels in the Shreya Singhal vs. Union of India case, where we fought to protect free speech and expression online. It was something that we truly believed in, thus being a part of the counsel was a noteworthy accomplishment for all of us.
Another indelible act here would be the success of software patent guidelines in India on which SFLC.in led a coalition.
As a strong advocate of civil liberties for citizens in the digital world, and innovation and open access to knowledge, we, at SFLC.in aim to meaningfully and relentlessly contribute to any ongoing discussion around these issues.
Learning: With time and experience, I have come to realize that everything starts small and people are everything. Patience and perseverance serve a well -planned strategy. As Justice Thurgood Marshall said, “You must exactly know what you want and you must exactly know how to get it.” Therefore, in my opinion, patient strategic thinking is the cornerstone of numerous adventures.
What are the values that you look for, or wish to instill in your employees?
One of my often repeated sentences to prospective team-mates is that, “I can teach you law, train you in technology but I cannot teach you values”. We look for commitment to the cause of freedom, mission of the organization, honesty and the desire to bring about a change in the world.
We endeavor to learn from friends and competitors and we relentlessly try to be a better version of ourselves. The world needs a very large set of people who believe in liberty, equality and justice but there aren’t ever enough.
What are your views on the Net Neutrality debate? In today’s age and time, where internet has become the core aspect of our daily lives, should ‘access to internet for all’ be seen as the need of the hour, especially in developing nations such as India?
‘Access to internet for all’ is most definitely the need of the hour! As companies and states begin to chip away the freedom that Internet offers to the human race, the work to preserve Internet’s promise becomes imminent. The Internet is the possibility of unlimited interconnection, a social condition in which we can all be connected to everyone else everywhere, with rich technical connections that can allow us to produce services for one another.
Violating network integrity is as wildly profitable as it is socially destructive. Our constant endeavour is to change the regulatory culture so that the real ‘Digital India’, where ordinary people can make extraordinary businesses from scratch, can flourish instead of being bogged down by such violations.
The motto you live/work by?
Work smart, Travel often.
If not in the current profession, you would have been?
I would have been a part of some theatre group!
Favorite/most relatable movie character and why?
From Hollywood it’s Iron Man and the Bollywood choice is Sonbai (played by Smita Patil) from the film, Mirch Masala (1978).
One gadget you cannot live without?
I don’t have many gadgets because the more I learn about technology, the less I want to be a slave to gadgets. But if it comes down to the wire, I would really like to have my ‘dumb’ phone because I like calling people without the interference of numerous apps, which is the downside of the modern ‘smart’ phone.