Govt Removes Tharoor as IT Panel Chair: A Look at the Flashpoints in His Tenure
The government and the Tharoor-led IT parliamentary committee have been at loggerheads on issues such as Pegasus.
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The Congress has lost the chairmanship of the parliamentary committee on Information Technology in the latest reconstitution of the parliamentary panels, with Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor being replaced by Prataprao Jadhav, a Shiv Sena MP from the Eknath Shinde faction.
The latest rejig of the parliamentary panels, which happens annually, was notified on Tuesday, 4 October, and comes after a tumultuous tenure of Tharoor, during which the committee took up several subjects critical of the government.
The Tharoor-led panel discussed issues like Pegasus snooping row, internet shutdowns, Data Protection Bill, Facebook whistle-blower, and allegations of Twitter hiring an 'Indian government agent.'
Earlier, according to a report by The Indian Express, Congress leader in the Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury had marked his protest over Tharoor's removal as chair to Speaker Om Prakash Birla on 21 September, stressing how it was "extremely unusual that the chairpersonship of a committee has been changed in the middle of the 17th Lok Sabha."
Further, BJP members in the committee and Tharoor have been at loggerheads in the past, so much so that MP Nishikant Dubey had moved a privilege motion in July 2022 against the Congress MP, pushing for his removal as the head of the committee.
Dubey had accused Tharoor of 'discriminatory use' of his position and claimed that he had lost the trust of a majority of committee members.
Let us take a look at all the times the IT parliamentary standing committee went toe to toe with the Modi government by taking up controversial issues.
Over Allegations of Twitter Hiring an 'Indian Govt Agent'
Most recently, it was reported that the Tharoor-led body grilled senior Twitter officials over the disclosures made by renowned cybersecurity expert and whistleblower Peiter “Mudge” Zatko on its India operations.
Among the whistleblower revelations, one of them pertained to "agents" of the Indian government allegedly having access to sensitive data through the social media platform.
The panel had called upon Twitter executives, including senior director (public policy) Samiran Gupta and director (public policy) Shagufta Kamran, last month.
Even as the top officials denied allegations of malpractice and data breaches, the panel indicated that their replies on issues of data security and privacy were "not satisfactory," news agency PTI quoted sources as saying.
The committee members had also reportedly questioned the officials over Twitter's data security policies being in sync with national and global privacy policies.
As per the report, a member said that the executives evaded questions about data safety and privacy, following which they were reprimanded by the MPs.
The panel was also reportedly asked how the microblogging site handled conflicts between national privacy policies of different countries, only for their queries to be stonewalled by the executives.
The Indian government remained a mute spectator as these revelations made the news.
The Frequency, Cost, and Absence of Data on Internet Shutdowns
In a report presented to the Lok Sabha in December 2021, the parliamentary panel had flagged the issue of “frequent internet shutdowns” in India, underlining that these measures had cost the country $2.8 billion in 2020.
It also brought into question the effectiveness of halting internet services in the country, stating that no impact assessment had been done in the matter.
The report titled 'Suspension of Telecom and Internet Services and Its Impact' recommended the formation of a robust legal framework for enforcing such measures.
"The committee are of the view that lack of stipulated guidelines and safety measures gives a lever to state governments to resort to telecom shutdown on the slightest pretext of maintaining law and order and there is a need to follow the laid down procedure by states/UTs to avoid internet shutdowns in unwarranted situations," the report had iterated.
Further, noting that such shutdowns impact the life and liberty of people, healthcare services, and the local economy, the IT panel had advised the government to assess the impact of internet shutdowns on the economy and find out its effectiveness in dealing with public emergencies and public safety.
In another telling observation, the report had noted that the government maintained no official data on the throttling of internet services.
"The Committee strongly recommend that both the Department of Telecommunications and the Ministry of Home Affairs should establish a mechanism at the earliest to maintain a centralised database of all internet shutdown orders in the country, which will contain various types of information on internet shutdowns, such as the number of times suspension has been imposed, reasons, duration, etc," the report had noted.
When Govt Officials Skipped IT Panel Meet Amid Pegasus Row
In July 2022, a meeting chaired by the IT panel that was scheduled to discuss the subject of 'Citizen's Data Security and Privacy' in light of the Pegasus spyware revelations, was put off due to a lack of quorum.
The panel was slated to hear from government officials on the snooping claims.
“I am very disappointed that some elements on some issues have chosen to reduce this committee to some sort of a ping pong match which I don't believe is in the spirit of Parliament or parliamentary committee,” Tharoor said after the abandonment of the meeting.
Earlier, some members of the committee met in Parliament to discuss the issue. However, BJP members on the panel refused to sign the attendance register in protest, leading to a lack of quorum required to hold the meeting.
The 31-member parliamentary committee was also scheduled to meet on Wednesday, 21 September, to discuss the matter of 'Citizen's Data Security and Privacy.'
Meanwhile, in a letter written to the committee members, Tharoor had expressed that the alleged use of Pegasus for snooping on Indian citizens was a matter of "grave concern."
After the tussle, Tharoor wrote to the Lok Sabha speaker, requesting him to take note of the "breach of Parliamentary privilege."
Facebook India Chief Grilled Amid BJP Protests
In another instance, the IT panel had grilled Facebook India’s managing director Ajit Mohan for over two-and-a-half hours in September 2020.
Mohan was asked a barrage of questions including on a relevant The Wall Street Journal report, allegations of political bias among its top executives, and the platform's inaction on hate speech posts and political advertisements during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The Wall Street Journal’s report on 14 August that year had claimed that despite the insistence of Facebook employees to permanently ban the profile of BJP MLA T Raja Singh for promoting hate speech, the company’s top public policy executive in India, Ankhi Das, reportedly blocked attempts to apply the platform's hate speech rules to Singh.
Despite fierce opposition by BJP members of the committee to Facebook being summoned, the hearing had reportedly gone on without any major disruptions.
Another significant quarrel between the Tharoor-led panel and the government is the long-delayed deposition of Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang before the committee.
"It's been 13 months since I came forward as a whistleblower, and 6 months since the Lok Sabha asked for Speaker Om Birla to approve my testimony," Zhang said in May 2022.
Zhang, who worked with the Facebook Site Integrity fake engagement team, had found that Facebook allowed political manipulation across 25 countries including India.
On Data Protection Bill Being Referred to a Joint Panel
In a move decried by Tharoor and other data protection experts alike, the government referred the controversial Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, to a Joint Parliamentary Committee instead of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT.
Although the draft bill indicated that it would prevent the collection of personal data without the “explicit consent” of individuals, it also exempted government agencies from the proposed law.
In a letter addressed to Speaker Om Birla, Tharoor had said, "The exercise in creating a Joint Select Committee on a matter that rests squarely within the the purview of an existing Standing Committee sets a dangerous precedent since it will allow the government to bypass the designated standing committee in every instance where a contentious bill is under consideration."
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