Parliament IT Panel Grills Facebook Amid Widening BJP-Cong Rift
“I expect the BJP to not allow us to go ahead” a Parliamentary IT committee member from an opposition party said.
Facebook’s testimony before the Parliamentary Committee on IT on Wednesday, 2 September, is expected to be a tense session on multiple fronts.
While representatives of the social media company are expected are being grilled regarding allegations of political bias, a sharp political divide among members of committee has also emerged.
This fissure between the BJP and non-BJP members of the Committee has been rendered wider owing to a second Wall Street Journal article on 30 August that claims Ankhi Das, Facebook’s public policy director in India, made internal postings over several years detailing her support for the ruling BJP.
In light of the claims made by two Wall Street Journal articles, as well as by TIME magazine and The Indian Express regarding Facebook’s ties with the BJP, issues of Facebook’s neutrality during the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections, its handling of hate speech posts by BJP leaders, the political bias of its top executives like Das and Shivnath Thukral are among the issues that are expected to come up.
“I expect the BJP to not allow us to go ahead. I don’t understand why the BJP wants us to stop,” a senior opposition member from the Committee said, requesting anonymity.
“This is a news article published by the Wall Street Journal and TIME magazine. It’s not as if these are planted stories by us. I don’t understand why they have to take up the cause of Facebook,” he added.
According to the Lok Sabha website, the Standing Committee on IT has summoned representatives of Facebook “to hear the views of the representatives of Facebook on the subject 'Safeguarding citizens’ rights and prevention of misuse of social/online news media platforms including special emphasis on women security in the digital space”.
The Committee, chaired by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, comprises thirty members. While 21 members belong to the Lok Sabha, nine come from the Upper House of Parliament. The BJP has fifteen MPs, the largest representation on the Committee.
The Committee has also called MediaNama founder and digital rights activist Nikhil Pahwa and senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta to share their views preventing abuse of social media platforms.
A String of Serious Allegations Against Facebook
Between 14 August and 1 September, a string of major allegations have emerged against Facebook’s India operations and its top executives.
Wall Street Journal’s report on 14 August claims that despite the insistence of Facebook’s employees – responsible for policing the platform – to permanently ban the profile of BJP MP from Hyderabad T Raja Singh for promoting hate speech, the company’s top Public Policy Executive in India, Das, blocked applying hate speech rules to Singh.
According to the report, Das told staff members “that punishing violations by politicians from Modi’s party would damage the company’s business prospects in the country, Facebook’s biggest global market by number of users.”
Two weeks after the report, a TIME magazine report on 28 August mentions that Facebook’s former public policy director for India and South Asia, Shivnath Thukral, ignored some of the key communal hate speech violations that were pointed out by ‘Avaaz’, a watchdog group that monitors hate speech on social media platforms.
The TIME report echoes some of the points highlighted by the WSJ report about Facebook India’s ties with the ruling party. The article points out that Shivnath Thukral had worked with the BJP leadership to assist in the party’s 2014 election campaign.
On 30 August, a second WSJ report stated it accessed postings of Das on Facebook's internal communications systems that were perceived to be openly supportive of the BJP.
“We lit a fire to his social media campaign and the rest is of course history,” she wrote on the group. “It’s taken thirty years of grassroots work to rid India of state socialism finally,” read another post by her.
BJP Unhappy With Facebook Summon
Shortly after Wall Street Journal’s first article, on 14 August, Tharoor had stated that the Committee would summon Facebook. This sparked off a political storm with BJP MP Nishikant Dubey accusing Tharoor of violating Committee rules when he wrote to Facebook, asking it to appear before the committee.
Dubey even wrote to Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla seeking the removal of Tharoor as chairman of the standing committee. BJP MP Rajyavardhan Rathore, also a member of the committee, wrote to the Speaker as well, drawing his attention to the “violation of rules” by Tharoor.
Dubey, however, when contacted by The Quint on Tuesday, refused to comment on the claims made in the news reports and said he can now only comment on the Facebook summon after the meeting has ended.
“What can I say about this now when the meeting hasn’t happened, the sitting hasn’t happened,” said Dubey, adding “what I have said earlier or later is different but let the meeting happen first and then let’s see what happens.”
Despite an aggressive demand against Tharoor’s summoning of Facebook, BJP members of the panel were tight-lipped about their stance on Tuesday, a day before the meeting.
Another BJP MP, who is part of the 30-member panel, said now that Facebook has been summoned then issues would taken up. This depends upon the chairman and what he is planning.
When asked if the letter by Dubey seeking Tharoor’s removal had created a political divide in the Committee, the member told The Quint “Calling a meeting is not about parties but about rules and processes. How a meeting can be called is laid down clearly in the rules of the Parliament’s functioning,” he said.
“What will be asked will be clear during the meeting itself. I can’t say anything beyond that,” he added.
Why Is BJP Against Questioning a Foreign Company?: Opposition Members
A recurring point that multiple Committee members from non-BJP parties asked on Tuesday was regarding the need to question a foreign entity if allegations of election interference have been leveled against it.
“The fact that important publications are discussing the bias of Facebook in India about a foreign entity trying to disrupt peace in our country. Is this a very deliberate kind of action on behalf of Facebook? Do they have an agenda? These will be discussed when we meet tomorrow,” an opposition member of the Committee told The Quint.
“I do not know why the BJP is so emotional about the whole issue. If they have nothing to do with the bias of Facebook then they should not be worried,” he added.
Members pointed out that issues involving Facebook are not just specific to India but are being raised around the world.
Most recently, the US Congress’ virtual face-off with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg & Google’s Sundar Pichai on 30 July, on anti-competitive practices and abuse of their dominant positions, saw intense scrutiny as well as a public dressing down of some of the world’s wealthiest and most influential figures.
The ‘Big Tech’ CEOs weathered antitrust questions on abusing their monopolies, killing competition, bullying rivals, to a range of other questions like “helping China”, censoring right-wing voices and helping Joe Biden.
Members of India’s Parliamentary committee added that the seriousness of the matter is compounded by allegations against Facebook as a foreign entity of fomenting social disharmony through hate speech.
“I don’t understand why they have to take up the cause of Facebook. Why should the BJP care if an American is called or not called?” another member commented when asked if a political divide had emerged regarding the Facebook hearing.
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