On Monday, 11 February, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey skipped a summon from a parliamentary committee on IT to depose before it.
Undeterred by the snub, a senior member of the committee told The Quint that it is also considering summoning CEOs of other major platforms such as Google and Facebook, instead of focusing solely on Twitter.
With Lok Sabha elections less than two months away, personal messaging and social media platforms have been employed as digital pulpits for political propaganda.
Amid accusations of amplifying misinformation, violating privacy and compromising data of citizens, the committee decided to summon Dorsey based on a complaint by a collective about Twitter’s alleged left-wing bias.
While independent experts The Quint spoke with appear unanimous in their appreciation of the committee’s wish to hold large platforms accountable, they questioned prioritising a partisan topic of alleged bias over examining violations of fundamental rights of citizens.
The move to summon Dorsey followed a complaint by the Youth for Social Media Democracy, a right leaning collective that includes Delhi BJP Spokesperson Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga.
The 31-member committee, chaired by BJP MP Anurag Thakur, currently has 21 members from the Lok Sabha and 10 members from the Rajya Sabha. At present, it comprises 13 MPs of the BJP, including LK Advani and five Congress MPs.
‘Why Single Out Twitter?’
Speaking to The Quint, the member, who was present at the committee meeting on Monday, felt it wouldn’t be entirely fair to just focus on Twitter in the election season. Instead, several members of the committee are learned to be of the opinion that all the major tech players operating in India need to be summoned.
“Many of us, members of the committee, have advised Chairman Anurag Thakur during the meeting on Monday to not just single out Twitter but also summon the other big platforms like Facebook and Google, and hear their policies before the upcoming elections.”Member, Parliamentary Committee on IT
This proposal has merit because Twitter’s market in India, reportedly at 30 million users, is significantly smaller than Facebook and Google’s YouTube, which have over 240 million and 225 million monthly active users, respectively. Therefore, any scrutiny of social media platforms without engaging the big players would appear arbitrary and incomplete.
At present, it appears a long shot to be able to get Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook CEO), Sundar Pichai (Google CEO) and Jack Dorsey to book seats on a long trans-pacific flight to New Delhi in two weeks. Dorsey has been summoned again on 25 February.
“My country’s parliamentarians have every right to want to hold the big social media platforms accountable. But I feel that wanting to engage only with the CEO is not necessary. They can speak with other senior executives with details about the company’s policies,” said Nikhil Pahwa, Founder and Editor of Medianama.
However, the big question is, what are the issues that the committee wants to question the online giants on?
A Reflection of the Panel’s Priorities ?
The topic the government is seeking to scrutinise Twitter on is 'safeguarding citizens’ rights on social/online news media platforms'. While the subject matter appears broad, its primary focus will be to investigate whether the platform has muzzled right-wing speech.
Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia policy director at Access Now and chair of the Internet Freedom Foundation, said that while social media platforms should be held accountable, the topic for summoning Twitter appeared partisan.
“It is good for parliamentarians to scrutinise the CEOs, but the question is whether the topic is the most relevant and important one. There are more important priorities concerning privacy and security that could have been addressed first.” Chima told The Quint.
“It is important to remember that this committee had started inquiries into a number of topics in the past, but have not completed them and neither have reports of these inquiries been made public,” Chima added.
A question that arises regarding the committee is whether it is within its mandate to examine the correctness of an allegation brought by a group against one particular platform. This makes the scope look too narrow and the topic too partisan.
Pratik Sinha, founder of fact-checking portal AltNews, offered a similar view. “It is too small an issue to make it such a global issue. A couple of handles getting suspended, how does it matter? I can imagine if 200 significant handles get suspended at one go, then I can imagine a party reacting to it.”
Questions About the Committee’s Track Record
A number of concerns have been voiced about the manner in which the committee has functioned during its term. The concerns relate to the subjects selected for scrutiny, the manner in which the inquiries have progressed, the availability of the committee’s reports, and the involvement of stakeholders.
WHERE IS THE DATA?
In the context of the current subject of an alleged left-wing bias that the committee has chosen to devote its time to, the first question is what data has been presented to the members about the accusation.
Sinha feels that without concrete data to study the subject, it will be difficult to justify the summoning of a company’s head.
“If there is a bias, it should be looked into – definitely. But where is the data? Where is the data to show there is a bias? No data has been published in public domain, even by right-wing portals like OpIndia. It does not look good, people will laugh at us because we have no data to justify our position.”Pratik Sinha, Founder, AltNews
WHY NO SUCH SUMMONS AFTER CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA ROW?
BJP MP Anurag Thakur, the chairperson of the standing committee, had tweeted that it had taken “very serious note of” Dorsey’s absence and would consider “appropriate action.”
However, Google was called for a hearing on Net Neutrality in 2015, which the company had skipped. Neither did the panel press the company about its absence, nor did it make any comments about action or punishment for failing to show up, as it has done in the case of Twitter.
Any action for breach of parliamentary privilege has to be referred to a privilege committee by the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, and not the committee chairperson.
Similarly, following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which Facebook admitted that personal data of 5 lakh Indians had been compromised, the committee initiated an inquiry in May 2018. However, it neither summoned Facebook nor Cambridge Analytica for deposing before it.
WHAT ABOUT INCOMPLETE INQUIRIES?
The inquiry on “citizens’ data security and privacy” initiated by the committee after the Cambridge Analytica scandal remains incomplete as the report has not been made available and, therefore, the findings remain unknown.
WHY IS THERE NO ENGAGEMENT WITH INDEPENDENT EXPERTS?
In inquiring a subject that affects the citizens of India, the committee has the right to seek the help of anyone who can provide insight and information. “However, be it Cambridge Analytica or 'Review of functioning of UIDAI in October 2018’ or the current issue of an alleged left-wing bias, the committee repeatedly chose to engage with select representatives from the government only without inviting any civil society experts,” Chima told The Quint.
The question is: Is that enough?