House IT panel divided on summoning Facebook

Updated on Aug 18, 2020 02:53 AM IST

Committee member and BJP MP Nishikant Dubey told Hindustan Times that Tharoor could not call Facebook to seek an explanation because the House rules don’t allow it .

A report suggesting Facebook was going easy on hate speeches by members of ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has become the subject of a political controversy(Reuters File Photo)
A report suggesting Facebook was going easy on hate speeches by members of ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has become the subject of a political controversy(Reuters File Photo)
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByDeeksha Bhardwaj and Aurangzeb Naqshbandi

The information technology (IT) parliamentary committee is split over summoning Facebook executives to explain reports of it displaying a bias towards the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) when it comes to censoring hate speech.

IT panel chairperson Shashi Tharoor on Sunday said that the committee would like to hear an explanation from the social media company after a report in the Wall Street Journal said that its policy head Ankhi Das advised against taking acton against a BJP leader.

Committee member and BJP MP Nishikant Dubey told Hindustan Times that Tharoor could not call Facebook to seek an explanation because the House rules don’t allow it .

Also read: Delhi committee likely to probe Facebook officials over charges

“As the chair, Tharoor’s powers are conferred upon him by the speaker,” said Dubey. “Rule 269 states that it is the secretary general who has the power to summon a witness.”

Dubey earlier tweeted out a similar message, sparking a controversy on the microblogging site with Trinamool Congress MP and committee member Mahua Moitra coming to Tharoor’s defence.

“Am IT committee member -- agenda item was already agreed & bulletinized with Speaker’s approval at the beginning of the year,” Moitra tweeted. “When to schedule each item and who to call is Chairman’s prerogative. Amazing how BJP jumps up & down at anything to do with FB’s interests.”

Tharoor too responded late on Monday evening, saying that Dubey has brought the “committee’s work into disrepute”. “You are absolutely right, Mahua Moitra, & by imputing motives to my decision, @nishikant_dubey has brought the Committee’s work into disrepute, a matter I will take up. Extraordinary that an MP would suggest that a matter of such great public interest should NOT be taken up by us,” he wrote on Twitter.

According former Lok Sabha secretary general P.D.T Achary, the committee can take up a special subject under rule 276 of the procedure.

“A committee may, if it thinks fit, make a special report on any matter that arises or comes to light in the course of its work which it may consider necessary to bring to the notice of the Speaker or the House, notwithstanding that such matter is not directly connected with, or does not fall within or is not incidental to, its terms of reference,” is what the rule says.

Achary told Hindustan Times that the secretary general is the administrative head, but not all documents need to necessarily be signed by him.

“There is a secretariat attached to each committee,” Achary said. “The chairperson can request a third party to come and offer an explanation. It then goes to the secretariat for approval.”

Achary added that issue here would have been whether the subject can be taken up, but since there is provision for a “special subject” that does not hold in this case. “Once a subject is taken up, which at the discretion of the chairperson unless there is wide opposition from the committee a request can be made to call a third party.” The IT committee has 30 members, 15 of whom are from the BJP and its allies.

Also read: Ravi Shankar Prasad says Rahul Gandhi’s attack on RSS, BJP relies on a myth, asks a counter question

The Congress on Monday stepped up its attack, saying Facebook’s “inaction against hate content destabilises” democracy in India, and reiterated its demand for a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) into the charges.

Parliamentary affairs minister Pralhad Joshi, however, told Hindustan Times that a JPC was out of the question.

“The allegations are a manifestation of the frustration of the Congress and Rahul (Gandhi). They have been disrespecting institutions like CAG { Comptroller and Auditor General} , EC {Election Commission}, SC {Supreme Court} and also the electronic voting machine by raising doubts. Facebook is a new chapter from their frustration book.”

The Congress, however, isn’t the only opposition party to have raised the issue. “I spoke on this issue on the floor of #Parliamentin June 2019,” tweeted TMC spokesperson Derek O’Brien. In his speech, O’Brien had alleged the existence of a connection between the BJP and the senior management of the social networking site which he referred to as “de facto campaigners for the BJP,“ alluding to Das. “Facebook’s Delhi office is virtually an extended BJP IT cell. Facebook censored anti-BJP news and put other parties in jeopardy,” he had said.

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