#KeepItCivil while Supporting Women, Free Speech, and Access to the Internet

When she was a young, single woman in law school, Mishi Choudhary’s father took her to meet an important and well-known lawyer, hoping he would inspire her. Instead, the lawyer told her she should not decide on her career path until she found out what her future husband would be doing.

“It was a very dampening thing for a youngster… I did not know who I was going to marry, and [the idea] that an imaginary person was going to decide the course of my life was not very encouraging.”

Suffice it to say, Mishi did not take the lawyer’s advice. Today, as a technology lawyer and online civil liberties activist, the founder of the Software Freedom Law Centre in India and the Legal Director of the NYC-based Software Freedom Law Center, Mishi represents the rights of Internet users and free software developers. An accomplished litigant, she is currently the only lawyer in the world to simultaneously appear on briefs in the US and Indian Supreme Courts in the same term.

Mishi Choudhary is a partner with Internews’ Internet Policy Partnership Project (IP3). In this video, she speaks alongside IP3 partners from DRC and Colombia in a panel discussion, Internet Shutdowns and the Silencing of Dissent.

Learning about Access at an Early Age

Mishi was born in Delhi. Her father is a pharmaceutical manufacturer in India, considered “pharmacy to the world.” A common topic of discussion in the household was keeping the cost of drugs low to provide access for people in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. As a child, her father encouraged her to study Political Science and Law.

“I loved every minute of what I was doing — it just opened my brain and my horizons to a very different world. I started in commercial litigation and was a criminal defense attorney for a while.”

But after a while, Mishi felt drawn to a larger purpose and started looking for a way to use words to “make justice in the world.”

“Coming from India where resources are limited and sharing is a big part of our culture…no matter which part of India you belong to, a big part of it is how you share knowledge in order to amplify and increase it for everybody else. And every day, stopping people from sharing knowledge with manufactured property rights of copyright didn’t gel with my upbringing and values. Then I discovered free and open source software and freeculture.”

Combining Law & Technology

Alongside law, Mishi also educated herself in computer programming as a hobby. While studying at Columbia University, she began to see a path to integrate the two. She was inspired by the Free Software Foundation, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Center for Democracy & Technology.

“India is a very big country for software development but we had no legal services or advocacy organization that was even trying to pause and think about our actions and their impact on human society. So I decided, I’m going to do this and to have an EFF in India.”

In 2009, Mishi founded the Software Freedom Law Centre in India, a donor-supported legal services organization that brings together lawyers, policy analysts, technologists, and students to protect freedom in the digital world. While Mishi has been successful as a lawyer, it hasn’t been without its challenges, particularly with regard to sexism in the workplace.

“Misogyny is an Everyday Business”

Subtle sexism is an ongoing issue, from being cut off when speaking at a conference, “mansplained” on social media, or being second-guessed by male lawyers whom she supervises. There is also the assumption that, as a woman, she doesn’t know how technology works.

All this has made Mishi determined to provide a workplace that encourages women lawyers to participate fully and to stay in the workforce even when the demands of family life increase.

“We have very good maternity and paternity leave policies. In my US office I saw my own boss encourage our brilliant business manager to bring her baby to work for almost a year every day. People would take turns babysitting if she was on a call. And the idea was that she should not be forced out of work.

That really inspired me. We had one lawyer who had three kids and she wanted to leave early so we said, ok leave at four, which is unheard of in a law office, but she would work from home after her kids had gone to bed and she had spent time with them.”

Mishi encourages the young women lawyers who work for her to present at conferences even when they feel unsure of themselves, telling them it’s ok if you “screw it up” because it prepares you for the big speech you may give someday. She wants women’s voices to be heard at the conferences and on the Internet.

Silencing Through Cyberbullying

Mishi also confronts much less subtle forms of sexism, including overt harassment. Just last month, 20-year-old student activist Gurmehar Kaur in India posted a photo and message in response to a right-wing student group which had vandalized Ramjas College to protest an invited speaker. Because she expressed an opinion online, Gurmehar received rape and death threats on social media from thousands of individuals.

Mishi, among others, came to the defense of Guremhar.

“Our hashtag and call for this project has been #keepitcivil. You can have different points of view. But you don’t have to start calling out and abusing each other’s parents and mother and daughter and then call out their caste or color of skin. All this is irrelevant.”

Despite her call for civility, Mishi woke up the next morning to a barrage of hateful messages ranging from personal to professional.

“And as a person, it’s not very easy. It can shake you to the core…especially if somebody starts doxing, or saying ‘ok we’ll come and get you and rape you, throw acid on your face. This is what we will do to you.’”

Mishi notes that online harassment happens to both men and women but women are particularly targeted and silenced with rape and death threats. In December 2016, her organization released a report called Online Harassment: A Form of Censorship that compiles findings from a year of research into the issue and offers recommendations for individual users, platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and law enforcement agencies.

Getting the Rest of the World Online

Despite the perils of online harassment, Mishi sees great potential in the Internet for education and expression. For those who lack access to the internet today, particularly the poor, Mishi seeks avenues for them to come online as not only consumers of data but also producers. But they need to be able to access the Internet without sacrificing their privacy and data, she says.

“A lot of big companies like Facebook want to offer internet access in guise of philanthropic measures such as ‘free basics,’ in return for data. What I’m observing is that there’s an increasing way of slicing the Internet. Only some people own it and privacy becomes the luxury of the first world. If privacy is important to Mark [Zuckerberg], then it should be equally protected for that person in India in a village who can barely afford a very cheap feature phone. We are very smart people in this world. We should be able to figure out how not to give up data and privacy and still have all the benefit.

That’s the kind of access we want for everybody.”

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Mishi Choudhary is a partner with Internews’ Internet Policy Partnership Project (IP3). Through IP3, Internews works to create strong policy enabling environments to support internet freedoms in countries by providing direct legal, policy, advocacy, and financial support to leading human rights defenders and civil society organizations. Since 1999, Internews has been dedicated to furthering digital rights and human rights online, and has worked extensively to support internet freedom communities to promote regulations to unhindered access to ICT services worldwide. Through its Global Technology Programs, Internews has developed the capacity of a cadre of internet freedom advocates across four continents in more than 30 countries worldwide.