Transitions and achieving our true potential

Since IFF's inception in 2016, its mission has only become more vital. To meet this need, Apar Gupta was appointed its first Executive Director in 2018. Today, we announce that he will be stepping down as Executive Director and will take on the role of Founder Director at IFF.

18 July, 2023
6 min read

Since IFF's inaugural public post on Independence Day in 2016, its mission has grown increasingly vital with each passing day. We recognised this need in 2018, noting an, “ambitious acceleration in the scope of our work.” with the appointment of Apar Gupta as our first Executive Director. Our plans were documented in an Organisational Development Plan and tangibly articulated with documents such as an Implementation Plan for 2023 (available here). This is a move to build layers of leadership that can power on this work forward.

From the start, Apar intended for a transition process after a term of six years. It forms part of IFF’s strategic planning efforts for continuing growth and serving our founding intent of being a public organisation. We understand the transition will place higher levels of responsibility on our staff and we are relying on our community to support them. Conscious of our commitments and need to inform our wide network of supporters of these changes, we have identified the following top three priorities in this transition process:

  • Growing organisational human resourses and raising funds to commence the search for an Executive Director by April, 2024.
  • Demarcation of responsibilities and continuing skilling among the three verticals at IFF (litigation, policy and operations) among senior staff leadership.
  • Ensuring stability and signalling confidence to our community, donors, and staff by ensuring Apar continues to help out in the role of IFF's “Founder Director”.

From April, 2023 the first steps were taken with Apar providing voluntary time to advise staff as a Founder Director without executive authority. To formalise his role, we have drawn up a document seeking public comment on the roles and responsibilities of the Founder Director (available here). You are encouraged to send us any comments or suggestions you may have on it to [email protected]. We also note with appreciation Apar's contributions to IFF.

During his term, we have been able to achieve some really neat results:

  • Staff size grew to 10 members and 3 Of Counsels with an average tenure of about two years and four months with equal levels of gender diversity. During this time we fundraised Rs. 2,86,20,002 from over 8000 Indian internet users and 17 local organisations. Today, IFF’s community fundraising model serves as a case study for the social sector in India used by organisations such as ILSS.
  • Provided legal representation in 60+ cases, many of which are landmark challenges on issues such as Aarogya Setu, Encryption, CoWIN, Pegasus, Sedition, IT Rules, Internet Shutdowns and Website Blocking and providing assurance to organisations such as PUCL, FMP, VLCPlayer and Internet Archive completely pro-bono. We also participated in over 35 public consultations, created 6 legislative briefs, drafted 2 private members bills, created a model manifesto on digital rights adopted in part by two political parties, and briefed more than 18 Members of Parliament across the political spectrum. We also filed 800+ RTIs and worked with collaborators to build projects such as Zombie Tracker, Project Panoptic, DPDC Clinic and PlugTheBreach. Much of this work is documented in over 778 blog posts contained on IFF’s website.
  • Raised civic literacy on digital rights through social media outreach on Reddit (70,000+ karma), Twitter (74,200 followers), Instagram (65,700 followers), Telegram (community of over 800 members), Youtube (over 5000 subscribers and 88,000 views). Staff authored more than 110 op-eds, participated in 800+ media interviews and have around 5000+ press reports mentioning our work. IFF also created two annual events for convening our community -- FoE Con (launched in 2022 in collaboration with NewsLaundry) on free expression and Privacy Supreme (since 2018) to mark the Supreme Court’s judgement on the fundamental right to privacy. IFF also collaborated with more than thirty artists for illustrations, visuals and merchandise being recognised with an Honorary Mention for the Prix Ars Electronica Prize in 2022.

For his work at IFF, Apar was also elected as an Ashoka Fellow, received a special mention for the Agami Shamnad Basheer Citizenship Prize and was listed in RoW100’s Global Tech's Changemakers.

Here is a statement by Apar:

“Around six years ago I started building out IFF as a staffed organisation at the age of 33. It seemed crazy while sitting with a laptop in a conference room full of legal periodicals. I had reason to believe. In 2016, a bunch of volunteers inspired more than a million people to write emails to protect the open internet. But a year later in many ways we lost the Aadhaar case. Through these experiences, I became convinced of the need for a full-court advocacy organisation for digital rights in India. My term as an Executive Director had the objective of, “helping build a non-profit which has the promise of working on issues of technology to secure freedoms and our constitutional values of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity.” Now, has IFF been able to achieve it? Also, what has my role been in it? I believe it has only taken the first few steps in a long walk. Here, success when possible has been due to the intellect, courage and labour of its co-founders, staff, of counsels, volunteers and individual donors. I have been lucky to have learned from and sometimes led them, especially during those terrifying pandemic years. Their continuing support to IFF is what leads to success in courts, before regulators and legislative bodies, and in service of the internet users of India.

Some may wonder, why leave as an executive director? Most of it has to do with IFF’s intent to build a public organisation that is not controlled by an individual, or a small group. We have committed to it from the start. While ownership in work is important in building an organisation, I firmly believe that IFF should be defined by its principles and practice rather than by a person. This requires tangible steps for timely transitions to prevent rent seeking or entrenchment of power. Frankly, I consider the last six years as service towards a  realisation of the democratic potential of digital technologies. Like many non-profit founders driven by passion I was completely vested in the organisation’s success. This brought great joy, taught me new skills and I made mistakes. Here, on any notes of dissatisfaction, I bear responsibility. Plans often don't work out. Deep down, I reflect on our losses, for instance IFF’s metropolitan biases, its modest member base, an inability to build a movement or launch large public campaigns, and loss of talent. While it is relevant, they cannot solely be passed off to IFF’s small budget, high levels of public cyncism and democratic backsliding. I do have regrets and work has been hard, but always inspired by IFF’s founding belief in the Constitution.

So, what happens now? With my transition I am excited to see new ways of work and impact. It is my firm belief that IFF will do well with a reset on staff leadership. What have I planned? I hope to give time to writing and taking steps in activating my law practice. But first explore a little over the next few months —- to seek new challenges while remaining connected to my past. IFF’s journey till now is only a start. It takes decades, not years to institutionalise a civil liberties organisation. Over the next few years, I will continue to be a champion for IFF, advise, and work when pulled in and if needed by staff. I remain committed to serve our country in some way or another. Time for some gratuitous, parting advice? One of my deep beliefs has been the need for at least thirty to forty advocacy organisations in different regions that work at the intersection of technology and rights in their own way. Systems change is a long game that needs more players on the team. Here, I hope IFF encourages more Indians to do something crazy and needed for our republic. If we all take a step, we will win this marathon!”

We thank Apar for his work on digital rights and look forward to his continued support as a Board Member and the Founder Director of IFF. We thank our community for their continued support during this transition process. IFF’s success is made possible each day due to a wide and diverse group including its staff and volunteers. IFF has been able to achieve great social impact over the past 6 years due to the generosity of our donors for our path towards financial sustainability. Support our mission, we encourage you to donate and sign-up to become a member.

Wish us luck for IFF to achieve its true potential!

Anshul, Aravind, Vandita, Rachita, Karthik
Board of Trustees, Internet Freedom Foundation

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