With a vision that combines free speech with digital privacy, this policymaker has redefined the role of the internet in society.

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Sunil Abraham | The online warrior

Sunil Abraham in Greater Noida during a recent visit. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The article by Anirban Sen was published in Livemint on August 9, 2014


Freedom of digital security Sunil Abraham

Tucked away in a neighbourhood in Bangalore’s upscale Indiranagar residential area is an innocuous, three-storeyed, white building. A grassy empty plot lies opposite. It could be just another house in a neighbourhood dotted by similar structures. The scene changes dramatically inside. People talk animatedly, poring over computer screens, wired in like it is a hackers’ lair. It has a “secret command centre” kind of room in the basement. In the midst of what looks like a geek utopia, a bespectacled man rattles off facts and figures on Internet laws, cyber-security and digital privacy. Forty-year-old Sunil Abraham started the non-profit research think tank Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) in 2008. The venture, which focuses primarily on Internet governance, has attracted investment from philanthropist Rohini Nilekani (ironical, considering Abraham has been an outspoken critic of the Unique Identification Authority of India, or UIDAI, project that was spearheaded by her husband and Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani). Over the years, Abraham has become an authority on issues related to freedom of expression, Internet privacy and security, free software and cyber laws. His efforts have yielded results. The best example is the Justice A.P. Shah committee report released in October 2012.

It puts a stamp of authority on Indian privacy principles, and ensures privacy protections “do not have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression and transparency enabled by the RTI (right to information)”, as Abraham wrote in Forbes India magazine last year.

“We’re not regulatory hawks,” explains Abraham, an engineer by education. “We don’t have an ideology—we don’t have people who are either left or right. And therefore we don’t want to regulate the private sector for the sake of it, just to cause them more grief. We have great appreciation for the role the private sector plays in the economy.” He adds that their design principles are conservatism, forbearance and equivalence. “With these broad principles, we believe we can get Internet regulation right,” he says. Abraham has actively advocated free speech and privacy of individuals. Last year, in an interview with Mint, he spoke about the need to upgrade the country’s draconian information technology laws. Abraham’s Twitter timeline is full of posts related to open source software, the National Security Agency, hackers, accessibility, and the UIDAI project.

A free software advocate, Abraham’s journey in the area of freedom of expression and speech was thrust on him. “I’m a fraud, and a charlatan,” he says, laughing. “I only have a degree in industrial production engineering. I have never been trained to do what I’m able to do today.”

In 1998, at the behest of T. Pradeep, founder of the non-governmental organization Samuha, Abraham started an organization called Mahiti. It aimed to reduce the cost and complexity of information and communication technology by using free software. In 2008, Bangalore-based legal researcher Lawrence Liang came to him with the idea for CIS. Philanthropist Anurag Dikshit provided the initial seed funding and CIS was born. Dikshit still continues to fund and support CIS.

“I’ve always surrounded myself with competent people,” Abraham says.

At CIS, Abraham’s core team is composed mostly of lawyers, social scientists and mathematicians such as Nishant Shah, Pranesh Prakash and Nirmita Narasimhan.

For the first 25 years of his life, Abraham never stepped out of the south. In the next 15 years, he would travel across the world and visit more than a dozen countries. Abraham completed his degree in industrial and production engineering from the Dayananda Sagar College of Engineering in Bangalore and during second year of college, organized a peaceful demonstration of 5,000 college and school students against the 1992 Babri Mosque demolition and the Mumbai riots of 1993.

As he talks about the key influences during his days at Mahiti and CIS, one name stands out—noted Internet hacktivist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide last year. “His courage is something we might aspire towards,” says Abraham of the computer programmer who was posthumously inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame. Other names include Michael Geist, professor at the University of Ottawa, Canada, and an authority on issues related to intellectual property. “Geist is a gold standard on how to precipitate advocacy change,” says Abraham.

Before starting CIS, Abraham had taken up an assignment with the United Nations that helped him develop international acquaintances. While there, he managed the International Open Source Network project backed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Since then, he has been working with the governmenFor the Moldovan government, Abraham wrote the open standards policy, which the country’s Parliament did not approve and execute. A similar policy for the Iraqi government became law, and more recently, he has been working with the government of Myanmar. “For Myanmar, I will be working on a national open data policy. Governments also often ask for our help on copyright laws, IT acts, international Internet governance, etc—but most of them come through back-channels and informally,” says Abraham, who spends the little spare time he gets with his daughter. of countries such as Myanmar and Iraq on issues like open data and open standards. Such policies help upgrade redundant technologies, help in transparency and promote e-governance.

For the Moldovan government, Abraham wrote the open standards policy, which the country’s Parliament did not approve and execute. A similar policy for the Iraqi government became law, and more recently, he has been working with the government of Myanmar. “For Myanmar, I will be working on a national open data policy. Governments also often ask for our help on copyright laws, IT acts, international Internet governance, etc—but most of them come through back-channels and informally,” says Abraham, who spends the little spare time he gets with his daughter.

For CIS, one of the biggest achievements over the past five years was being part of the policy framework for the Union government’s draft national policy on standardizing e-governance. The organization has been working to increase Internet penetration in the country, especially in rural areas. Over the past five years, CIS has been part of the Justice A.P. Shah committee, which focuses on privacy laws in India, and is also working on the country’s telecom policy.

Colleagues at CIS describe Abraham as a workaholic who doesn’t get in the way of fellow workers. Abraham advocates the management ethos of three sources—that of Al Qaeda, Mahatma Gandhi and Scott Adams, who has written books on management and created the Dilbert comic strip. “The first principle in the Al Qaeda school of management is subsidiarity,” explains Abraham. “The Al Qaeda stands for ‘The Hub’. Al means The, Qaeda means Hub. If you think of the hub in a network, it’s a very important component of a network. It brings various nodes together and helps different nodes connect with one another.” He adds, “Nothing that I say should be misunderstood as an endorsement of the terrorist organization. We have no sympathies for what they do.”

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