Mr Arjun Adrian D’Souza is an alumnus of Symbiosis Law School, Pune. He also holds a Postgraduate Diploma in Cyber Law and Cyber Forensics from National Law School of India University, Bangalore. He has been Mr Justice Navin Chawla’s law clerk in the High Court of Delhi. As part of his litigation practice, Mr D’Souza has defended civil and criminal briefs before the Delhi High Court and District Courts in New Delhi.
At Software Freedom Law Center, Mr D’Souza oversees strategic litigation and intermediary liability verticals. His work entails compliance and research on issues of artificial intelligence, data governance, and privacy. Since 2022, he has led the Digital Defenders Network, a capacity-building initiative bringing together 25+ lawyers from across India.
We had a detailed discussion with Mr. D’Souza getting a glimpse of a career in the yet evolving technology laws in India.
1. To start with, please introduce yourself to our readers, and tell us what inspired you to pursue a career in technology laws?
I am Arjun Adrian D’Souza, an Advocate by profession. After graduating from Symbiosis Law School, Pune, I wanted to practise before courts and joined a law office founded by a college senior. Having grasped the practicalities of drafting, pleading and arguing, I went on to do a judicial clerkship under a Judge of the Delhi High Court.
On completion of my tenure after a year and half, I was at crossroads- whether to join a litigating chamber or study further.
It was at this point when I decided to align my interests in technology with the law. I understood that today, the fight for our fundamental freedoms was steadily shifting online. Much of our daily lives was marked by some form of digitisation. The physical realm carried the same significance. However, the online space was fast becoming the platform on which most of our interactions were taking place. I wanted to understand the implications of this momentous change; how it would shape human behaviour, the guardrails that should circumscribe use of emerging technologies, and the role of the Government in ensuring user safety. This propelled me to pivot to a career in technology, law and policy.
2. What major difference with respect to work-life balance did you experience when you were an associate, a judicial clerk and now legal counsel of a research centre?
As a junior advocate entering the legal field, the courts can seem overwhelming. It became apparent very early on that long hours, persistence and hard work were part of the job. Having a steep learning curve, it was admittedly strenuous to maintain a work-life balance. However, the reward of learning and practising law before courts on a daily basis is unmatched. As a judicial clerk, work timings are largely dependent on the board and manner of functioning of a particular court. One may find some free time in the evenings, during which I used to read about legal luminaries of past and present. At a legal research center, work-life balance is given priority, with provisions for dealing with burnout and mental health.
3. As someone who has earned a postgraduate diploma from National Law School of India University (NLSIU), would you suggest a diploma over a LLM, as one would be saving a year and get almost equal exposure in a particular field of law?
Certainly. Pursuing a postgraduate diploma provides one with certain flexibility that LLMs may not always bring. As I opted for the distance learning mode, I was able to work and study alongside. The Moodle instance deployed by NLSIU helped me stay uptodate with classes and material discussed. I would like to caveat this by stating that an LLM does have its own rewards and one should take a considered decision before opting for either.
4. Please tell us more about technology law, and what major development can we expect in this sector in the near future?
Moore’s Law has long been left in the dust. Developments in this sector have been coming at a dizzying pace. As I work around technology policy, I will speak about those. Technology law encompasses a vast array of internet-related issues, such as privacy, data protection, online platform regulation and user safety, surveillance, access, cyber security, artificial intelligence, compliance and so on. Each subject is a world of its own.
Going forward, as you might have suspected, we can expect emerging technologies to take on more defining roles. Technologies such as virtual/augmented/extended reality are constantly being fine-tuned to “replicate” the real-world experience. Synthetic media (deepfakes) has proliferated like wildfire. Cryptography, Web3.0, cloud computing, neural interface circuitry, metaverse and generative artificial intelligence (AI) each one has the potential to be transformative technologies.
Artificial intelligence deployments across sectors like industry, education, agriculture, healthcare and judiciary have enormous economic and social impact. The convergence of these technologies will have even more downstream effects.
The manner and form of regulation remains the key. Oftentimes, governance and not regulation may be sufficient. India has already enacted the Digital Personal Data Protection Act, 2023 and is expected to roll out the Digital India Act, which will replace the decades old Information Technology Act, 2000. Further introductions through the Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023, and the Telecommunications Act, 2023 will change the way telecommunications and information is regulated and consumed in India. Replacing age-old bills with contemporary regulations is necessary in this fast-moving sector.
It is important to be reiterated, however, that safeguards for individual safety and user rights must be inculcated into the very design of such technologies.
5. Please tell us more about your organisation, Software Freedom Law Center, India (SFLC.in)?
Software Freedom Law Center, India (SFLC.in) is a legal services organisation that works to promote and protect digital freedom. We promote innovation and open access to knowledge by helping developers make great free and open source software, protect privacy and civil liberties for citizens in the digital world by providing free legal advice. Our core areas of focus are privacy, free speech, access, and software freedom in the Indian context. We have been working at the forefront of technology, policy and human rights for more than a decade. In recognition of its contributions, it has been granted Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC). SFLC.in’s work has been cited by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), amongst others.
6. Please tell us about the Digital Defenders Network? How is this different from other pro-bono networks?
The Digital Defenders Network is an initiative to defend against the growing invasion of personal freedoms taking place online. The network acts as a pan-India network of lawyers collaborating to redress digital rights violations faced by citizens. We provide strong theoretical and practical training to the selected lawyers to ensure they are competent to protect constitutional freedoms. It is our belief that we can achieve wide reform in the digital sphere by making access to justice quick and efficient. The training and services provided by the lawyers is completely pro bono i.e. free of charge.
The kinds of cases include data privacy harms; cyber stalking; online harassment; cyber frauds; harm suffered due to internet shutdowns; unwarranted surveillance; ensuring device integrity and confidentiality; free speech offences, and so on.
I agree there are many organisations and collectives providing excellent pro-bono legal services. The DDN differs in that we seek not only to provide effective legal redressal to cyber issues, but to inculcate a sense of ownership of their data amongst all stakeholders of society. I feel that such a sense of ownership has become almost necessary in today’s age, thereby educating people and giving them agency over their data.
7. You have successfully conducted the first cohort of DDN. Can you please share your experience?
Organising the first cohort of lawyers for the Digital Defenders Network was a personal challenge. The experience was entirely wonderful. We selected a talented and passionate group of 25 lawyers across 14 Indian States. This community of lawyers spanned various age groups (23-45), areas of practice, and years of experience. Considering the busy schedules, we held training sessions on weekends. It was delightful to see the lawyers turn out in numbers.
They were trained on contemporary issues of digital rights, such as intermediary liability, cyber crimes and offences, digital security tools, data protection legislations, and tackling free speech offences. It became apparent that each member was eager to contribute and perform their tasks in the best possible way. The current cohort has been proactive in various ways, whether through filing of cases, drafting letters to authorities, or drafting opinion pieces on privacy related topics.
8. What kind of cases have the current cohort of digital defenders worked on? What are the major challenges that need to be addressed in this field?
A DDN lawyer based out of Ranchi, Jharkhand assisted in the filing of a writ petition challenging internet shutdowns before the Jharkhand High Court. The grounds of challenge pertained inter alia to the non-publication of orders as required under the statute. The Jharkhand High Court took a positive view and delivered a favourable order, granting a measure of transparency to the administration of internet shutdowns in the country.
Another DDN lawyer based out of Kerala assisted in challenging the arbitrary website blocking of free and open-source applications before the Kerala High Court. The matter is pending adjudication at present. We also filed a writ petition challenging the scheme of collecting student data with the help of a DDN lawyer from Kerala, which is also pending before the Kerala High Court.
I would say that the major challenge relates to finding more like-minded and passionate lawyers to add to the network. This would help distribute responsibilities and allow citizens to reach out to a number of lawyers in their respective locations, in a timely and efficient manner.
9. Since the second cohort of DDN has recently been launched, what new things can we expect? How does this program help an advocate in becoming more relevant to the current demands of the legal sector?
Well, in keeping with the latest developments, we have updated our training modules. We believe that comprehensive training on cyber issues will provide the lawyers with ready frameworks to resolve cyber offences and like issues. For instance, our updated modules focus on ensuring electronic device safety; Digital Personal Data Protection Act, 2023; and tackling online gender based violence. These issues have become even more prevalent today, so lawyers need to be equipped with ready tools to effectively advise and resolve grievances for citizens.
10. To end with, Mr D’Souza, could you please advise the students and practitioners seeking to build a career in technology laws?
Read, read and read. You can work towards building a career in the technology sector in various ways. If compliance and regulatory work interests you, then interning and working in-house or at law firms will give you good experience. If policy and research interests you, joining a research center or civil society would thoroughly inform your thinking on such issues. Pursuing further education through diplomas and LLMs is always beneficial.
While that alone may not guarantee success, it is important to keep abreast of developments in this specific sector. It is also important to always predict the impact of the work that you are doing on the citizens. Thinking and executing projects keeping in mind the on-ground realities is of utmost importance.
If it happens to be as rapidly evolving as the technology-policy sector is, then you must also prepare mental models. Such models may comprise of principles, theories, or practical tools, that will help you approach distinct areas of technology law in a nuanced manner. All in all, in a sector which is by nature in constant state of efflux, technology and privacy law developments will go a long way.