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The Guardian

Mar/05/2023 / by Melanie Fourie

Tech lawyer Mishi Choudhary protects the rights of online communities in the U.S. and India

Mishi Choudhary
Mishi Choudhary

If you need an Internet gatekeeper, look no farther than technology lawyer Mishi Choudhary.

Choudhary is qualified to practice in the Supreme Court of India, all state high courts in India, the State of New York, and the Southern District of New York. She’s also a member of the Bar Council of Delhi. In 2017, she made history as the sole lawyer to be on briefs concurrently before the U.S. and Indian supreme courts within the same term.

Choudhary was a partner at Moglen & Associates and the director of the legal department of the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) in New York. While at SFLC, she was the principal legal counsel for some of the largest and most influential free software developers and non-profit distributors across the globe, including OpenSSLI. She established SFLC.in in 2010. Her leadership has helped it grow into a nonprofit advocating for the free software developers and Internet users. In 2022, Choudhary was appointed senior VP and general counsel to Virtru, a leading data-centric security company. In an interview for SEEMA, she discusses her work, life, and inspiration.

Where were you born, and what was it like growing up there?

I was born in New Delhi. I had a stereotypical Asian mother who was very keen on me doing well in school. My father, on the other hand, was a rebel and a self-made striver who wanted me to get an education beyond books. He took me to a lot of theater, taught me history and political thought, encouraged me to participate in political campaigns, and instilled in me the traits of the “Argumentative Indian.” After 28 years, I was the first girl born in my extended family, which was dealing with a fast-changing society in which women wanted more rights. In some aspects, I was very lucky, and in others, I had to struggle to find my independence by breaking the shackles of love that manifested as complete control of my choices. All I wanted was the freedom to sail my own boat.

What made you pursue a career in law?

My father and my political science teacher. I wanted to pursue medicine, but my dad thought a public-facing career better suited my personality. He believed that lawyers have always been in the vanguard of fighting for rights, thereby ascending to positions of power. He wanted that for his girl.

My political science professor in undergraduate studies taught me about totalitarianism and authoritarianism and what that does to all sections of society. I knew that control could be exerted through love. So I was drawn to figuring out and renegotiating the terms of the social contract.

What does SFLC.in embody, and tell us about your journey as the founder there?

SFLC.in believes that all human rights are now digital rights, as technology has seeped into all aspects of our lives. Where beaucoup bucks are to be made, both technology companies and governments have a seat at the table, but it’s the people who need a voice and representation so that their rights are not negotiated away.

Electronic democracy, if we want to have it, is not this kind of “democracy” or electronics. People must demand from their governments that they receive the benefits of digital transformation, with their power to govern themselves with respect to their rights under the rule of law increased, not traded away for “convenience.” That means using technology, politics, and law in concert for the true public interest. To do so means beginning by defining users’ rights, and we help people do that.

At Virtru, what are some issues you help tackle?

I recently moved into a new role in my day job as SVP and General Counsel for Virtru, as I wanted to dedicate time to helping build products that make privacy possible in the simplest possible way. Empowering people through ease of usage and simple products is something I am very passionate about. When we started conducting digital security training, we didn’t want to be smug about knowing technology. We learned how people are keen on using tools that are good for them without compromising privacy. But most often, these technologies are hard to use, their usage is esoteric, and experts are too busy being experts.

While I work in my activist life to help enact legislation and bring in policies that provide people protection while ensuring secure sharing of data, my daily lawyer life helps my company build privacy protecting products. Because it truly is a multi-stakeholder effort that is required to build pro-humanity IT.

While a significant amount of data is exfiltrated against our wishes, by bad actors exploiting known and unknown vulnerabilities, the vast majority leaves our possession intentionally. Virtru brings data-centric security to everyone in an easy way.

Which of your strengths contributed the most to your career?

Perseverance, and keeping my eyes on the prize. I haven’t always been the smartest, most well-read, or most well-connected person, nor have I had a family in law, but what I have had is a desire to make a difference and the confidence to believe that I will, slowly and steadily, get there. On days that I feel overwhelmed, demotivated, or depressed, I lift myself by telling myself why and what I want.

If you could be a catalyst for bringing any law into force, what would it be?

People Protection Law (a bouquet of legislation) is where people can get all the benefits of technology without worrying about companies, criminals, or governments taking them for a ride with data collection. If I really need to choose one, then it’s the banning of the export of surveillance technologies.

How do you prioritize your work?

I don’t have a silver bullet to answer this question, but often the work with the largest impact or the greatest deadlines determines priority. I do have old-school To-Do lists for every aspect of my life. Putting pen to paper makes it more tangible for me, and I am a devotee of lists and notes.

What’s your stance on social media algorithms? For instance, do its advantages outweigh the disadvantages?

The technology package sweeping the human race, consisting of smartphones and “social media” companies, peddles a form of convenience that we are all buying into. This convenience ensures the establishment of a form of inhuman social control, antithetical to the ideals of individual human rights and democratic social self-governance. The root of the problem is the business model of these convenient services. Social media companies sell people to advertisers. The value in digital advertising lies in collecting information about people’s behaviors on a scale previously unimagined in the history of humankind.

Gram for gram, the smartphone is the densest collection of sensors ever assembled. It’s a spy satellite in your pocket, aimed at you. Whether you are open-minded or strongly inclined to the value system of your immediate social group, whether you are outgoing or introverted, whether you are inclined to positive or confrontational social interactions, these and other factors of personality can be derived from the trail you leave behind with your “social media” and telecommunications service providers.

As political professionals in and around the world have learned this decade, the Internet we now have is not a place for making arguments addressed at voters’ conscious minds, but rather a venue for making emotional appeals to their unconscious. Democratic self-government depends on thoughtfulness. As voters and citizens, we must govern through our ability to understand one another.

What are some steps Internet users can take to eradicate cyberbullying?

I think society has to come together and not put all the responsibility on a single user. Here are the steps individuals can take:

  1. Talk about it with other people. Don’t ever suffer alone. The shame is the bully’s, not yours.
  2. Use the blocking and reporting tools of the platforms like a warrior.
  3. Be careful about data sharing; learn about blocking ads and what not to share.
  4. Our friends, parents, and circles need to educate themselves and not be judgmental.

What have been some of the most gratifying experiences for you as a lawyer thus far?

  • Internet.org fights against Facebook — a true David versus Goliath lesson.
  • The opportunity to work as a lawyer for the world’s leading open-source projects and their communities.
  • The work of collaborative software production instead of the American idea of “protect and exclude.” This movement and its belief system have convinced the world, including its enemies, that the world can only be run equitably through such systems. They were also the first ones to caution me and make me sensitive to the idea of internet freedom. If we don’t control our technology, then everyone else will control us.

If you could change one aspect of Internet culture, what would it be?

Surveillance.

Tell us a bit about the people who have supported you and how that has helped you.

Eben Moglen, my mentor, teacher, friend, and inspiration for dedicating my life to bringing justice to the world using words. There are very few people in the world who have a firm grasp of the obvious and can see decades ahead. That Eben is a genius in the true sense of the word is known to the world.

How much of his life is dedicated to nurturing leaders of the world is also apparent from his teaching position. But how comprehensively he understands the world from a macro perspective and meets each of his mentees where they are and helps them shape their lives to be real contributors to society is rarely talked about. He has taught me to always see the bigger picture, always believe in principles, and take pride in sailing your own boat.

My father and my husband, who are the wind beneath my wings. It’s helpful to have personal cheerleaders who are also brutally honest in helping you think through life’s events.

How do you strike a healthy work-life balance?

I don’t have a healthy work-life balance and constantly struggle, but I always make time for family and friends, no matter how brief. It has to be quality. The flexibility to work from anywhere most of the time has definitely made things better.

One of my mentors, Mr. Kaul, taught me the importance of taking short vacations with different groups of one’s family and friends. I follow that religiously.

Health: I am a big fan of exercises of all kinds, including yoga, Pilates, tennis, and weight training. I also try to eat home-made, clean food, but I am a big fan of new cuisines. It’s the 80/20 rule. So if I am disciplined 80% of the time, I can always indulge and eat whatever I like. Traveling and living between two countries has given me the opportunity to experience several cultures, and I eat everything. Food really bonds people, and I love doing that.

You’ve already achieved so much, but where do you see yourself going forward?

I think achievements are relative. At each stage of life, one wants different things and different milestones. I see myself constantly working to create justice in the world using my legal license and paying it forward. I am privileged to be surrounded by young people curious about this hot new subject. So I always want to help them with specific guidance instead of generalities. I learned because people invested in me, and I do that now with youngsters.