Indian-born judge holds key to fate of the Internet

  • Yashwant Raj, Hindustan Times, Washington
  • Updated: Nov 29, 2015 10:20 IST
A file photo of Sri Srinivasan (L) in front of a US Senate hearing. The Indian-born judge is among three Washington judges who will determine if net neutrality rules are valid in law. (HT File Photo)

Indian-born Sri Srinivasan is among three Washington DC judges who will determine this week the future of Internet in the US, and as in much of all else, the rest of the world.

Srinivasan, Stephen F Williams and David S Tatel of the US Court of Appeals for the DC circuit (high court) will on hear December 4 what is being touted as the “case of the year”.

They will determine if net neutrality rules, which prevent telecom companies and internet service providers from playing favourites, is valid in law. They can, of course, overturn the rule.

It’s the same debate that is raging in India, and one which Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is testing with his free wireless service Free Basics, which he launched last week.

The US case has been on for couple of years now, going back and forth among the Federal Communications Commission, wireless serves providers and the courts.

The same DC appeals court in 2014 struck down FCC’s net neutrality rules, but the commission came back with new rules to enforce net neutrality. It’s back in court once again.

Srinivasan is a rising star in the US judiciary, widely believed to be on his way to the Supreme Court, as the first Indian American — and Asian American — to ever attain that position.

His appointment to the DC circuit court of appeal, a stepping stone to the apex court, by President Barack Obama in 2013, has been seen as a step in that direction.

The net neutrality case will be his biggest yet, is guaranteed to bring him additional attention, whatever is the decision of the court. His personal view on the matter is not known yet.

President Obama, the man who not only appointed him but also invested a large quantity of his own political equity into pushing his confirmation, is a big backer of net neutrality.

In February 2015, Obama welcomed the announcement of net neutrality and said it “will protect innovation and create a level playing field for the next generation of entrepreneurs”.

Free and open Internet was an election promise by Obama. But Srinivasan is not bound by it and an unknown record on the issue forces observers to turn tea-leaves to know his mind.

The Washington Post, which profiled the three justices in the context of the coming hearing pointed to Srinivasan’s unclear views on liberal values for clues.

It cited a report from Mother Jones, a new site which drew attention to the judge’s record in an article about his bumpy ride through the confirmation process.

“Srinivasan’s unclear record offers Republicans few legitimate reasons to block him. It also means that liberals can’t be sure that Srinivasan actually shares their views,” it had noted.

The 46-year-old judge, who is fanatical about basketball, grew up in Lawrence, Kansas. His father taught mathematics at the University of Kansas, and his mother taught at the Art Institute.

They are from Chandigarh and have been friends with the family of former prime minister Manmohan Singh, who attended Srinivasan’s oath-taking in 2014, minus the PM.

Sri, as he is known to everyone, graduated from Stanford University and did a joint law and business masters from Stanford’s Law School and business school.

“He is very hardworking and very humble,” Saroja Srinivasan, his mother had told Hindustan Times, beaming with obvious pride at his confirmation hearing in April 2013.

Srinivasan worked for the law firm of O’Melveny and Myers, where he made a reputation representing corporate clients including Enron boss Jeffrey Skilling.

He is brilliant, and humble. The first time he appeared before the Supreme Court, legend goes, he took along just a single sheet of paper, so as to not appear overconfident. The paper was blank.

If there is a vacancy in the court in the remaining years of President Obama’s term — and there may be one — Srinivasan is said to stand a decent chance of being nominated.

The New Yorker magazine said before his confirmation hearing if he “passes this test (his confirmation) and wins confirmation, he’ll be on the Supreme Court before President Obama’s term ends”.

He did clear the first test. He now faces another one.

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