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Lawyer Apar Gupta has been awarded the Ashoka Fellowship for his contribution to social entrepreneurship.
He has been recognised for his work with Internet Freedom Foundation, an organisation that strives to ensure that Indians can use the Internet with liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.
Bar & Bench spoke with Apar Gupta to find out more details about the Ashoka Fellowship and the work that Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) is doing.
What exactly is the Ashoka Fellowship? How does one qualify for it?
The Ashoka Fellowship is a nomination done by past or existing Ashoka Fellows. It is essentially a network of social entrepreneurs who are working towards system-level changes. The work that I am doing to ensure that fundamental rights are respected at the intersection of technology. India today has the second highest number of Internet connections. The focus of my work is to ensure that the political character of such digitisation furthers our constitutional values. This is a process of social change and also requires impacts on policies and regulations. It serves public interest for a large body of people.
Not many lawyers have received it thus far.
Even though lawyers do a lot of important work in the courts on issues of public law, they often do not usually end up effecting social change except for those who commit to dedicated cause lawyering. Even in those instances of specific cause based lawyering, it is my personal view that quite often to cause such impacts we require the creation of movements or sustainable organisations that outlast the interest or capacity of a single person. The Ashoka Fellowship focuses on a thematic area of work to which the fellow brings a degree of innovation for causing such system level changes. This may be a reason a low number of practising lawyers have qualified for this fellowship.
What sort of funding do Ashoka Fellows receive to help them achieve their goals?
As per my conversations with past Fellows, the stipend, if any, is a case by case need-based assessment that is granted for a term of three years to provide for financial stability. It is not a replacement for the funding needs of the organisation. I am yet to know what would be the specific terms of this kind of support. The true value of this fellowship is in its network and training non-profit entrepreneurs in tactics and strategy to achieve their goals.
Can you briefly tell us about the work IFF is engaged with? How did it come into existence?
Most of my work since October, 2018 has been to build towards the vision of an indian funded digital rights advocacy organisation. I hope the Internet Freedom Foundation can play this role which draws its roots from the Save the Internet movement, where close to a million people sent petitions to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to uphold network neutrality. From those days of public participation, IFF seeks to take forward work not only on net neutrality but also issues like privacy, data protection, free expression including blocking of websites and internet shutdowns, and to ensure that broader participation and choices for people who access the internet remains free.
IFF implements this work by identifying public needs and demands of online movements and collectives with long-term institutional engagement. Today, we not only go to court and litigate, but also engage with parliamentarians. We have drafted three private member bills till date and have deposed before several standing committees. We also engage in regulatory processes such as following up with TRAI in several consultations.
Our work is wholly funded by Indian sources. These are through a growing number of individual donors who make recurring payments every month, who we term as IFF members. Today, we have close to 127 paying members, several one time donors and some organisational donors who ensure our financial stability. We offer such members a sense of ownership by taking regular feedback and remaining accountable on how we spend their money. For instance, we organise quarterly calls that are available and made public on our Youtube channel. To further grow trust and credibility, we adopt policies including radical transparency making pro-active monthly disclosures on our fund flows.
The impact of our work has been outsized over the past 14 months. One of our most recent interventions was going to court in collaboration with PUCL to ensure the implementation of the Shreya Singhal verdict, which struck down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act. We have ensured that a copy of that judgment is made available to every district judge and police station in India. We realised that this may not cure the problem of 66A, so we have started a technical project in collaboration with Civic Data Labs, which we will count all 66A cases and create a data site so as to ensure that this unconstitutional law is not actually utilised in any criminal prosecutions in India. Our model is already bearing results and we hope to carry this into every domain where technology intersects with fundamental rights.