Joint Parl Committee grills Twitter on Kamra; row erupts over jurisdiction
In the meeting, Twitter policy head Mahima Kaul faced a barrage of questions from angry members of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on the Data Protection Bill when she was summoned for giving “incongruous” written replies to some questions related to the bill.Updated: Nov 20, 2020, 10:30 IST
Microblogging site Twitter faced heat at a meeting of a joint parliamentary panel on Thursday for not taking down comedian Kunal Kamra’s tweet targeting Chief Justice of India SA Bobde, and was asked to clarify its policy of blocking and removing users and tweets.
But the proceedings sparked a political tussle with four Congress lawmakers suggesting that such issues should be dealt by Parliament’s IT Panel headed by Shashi Tharoor. Panel chairperson Meenakshi Lekhi later dismissed the charge.
In the meeting, Twitter policy head Mahima Kaul faced a barrage of questions from angry members of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on the Data Protection Bill when she was summoned for giving “incongruous” written replies to some questions related to the bill. The company, the previous day, submitted a written apology for wrongly showing Ladakh as part of China.
JPC chairman Lekhi and Congress’s Rajya Sabha MP Vivek Tankha raised several questions, with Lekhi telling the Twitter official that both Tankha and she might sue Twitter over Kamra’s tweet even though they belong to different political parties.
The comedian’s tweet in question came after a barrage of tweets where he criticised the Supreme Court’s favourable ruling on Arnab Goswami’s bail request.
Lekhi, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP, also questioned Twitter’s policy of blocking or removing handles and tweets, and gave seven days to submit detailed response on the policy. “In their submission to the committee they said they follow healthy practices; and that only obscene and profane tweets are blocked. But there is no clear-cut policy on what amounts to profanity or obscenity; their affidavit is not clear on what is their policy is because when we showed them Kunal Kamra’s obscene tweets about the CJI they had no explanation for it,” she said.
MPs present in the meeting said it was Tankha who first raised the issue of Kamra’s tweet and said, it amounts to Twitter ridiculing the nation. “In our country, we cannot allow obscene remarks against anyone. And if Twitter is allowing such obscene remarks against CJI, then it can’t be tolerated,” Tankha said, according to the MPs who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The MPs quoted above added that the Kamra issue came up in connection to the affidavit by Twitter as discussions veered on the company’s policies on regulating objectionable content.
According to two MPs at the meeting, Twitter didn’t assure the panel that the tweet would be removed but said that the issue would be flagged to the appropriate officials at Twitter. “We’ve asked for an answer in seven days. Since there are no laws in India regarding these, we have to talk to the top executives of such service providers,” Lekhi said.
But Lekhi’s order asking Twitter to clarify on its policies led to a political row.
Senior Congress leader and Parliament’s IT panel chief Tharoor tweeted, “Dear @M_Lekhi, as far as I am aware your Committee was formed for consultations on the Data Protection Bill & its mandate is to report on the statutory provisions continued in the draft Bill. Could you clarify if you have taken on additional responsibilities & on whose authority?”
Tharoor’s colleague and member of the JPC, Jairam Ramesh, joined the debate and tweeted, “I could not attend the meeting today, but had I been there I would have raised this very issue. It is not the first time this has happened. The committee headed by @M_Lekhi has no authority over this issue.” Jairam later told HT, “We have a hyper-enthusiastic chairperson with wide-ranging concerns and interests.”
Two other Congress MPs, Karti Chidambaram and Saptagiri Ulaka, said the JPC has no jurisdiction to look into the Kamra issue.
Lekhi hit back at the party. “I won’t run a law tutorial for Shashi Tharoor when his own party colleague Vivek Tankha has already concurred with me...A member of the IT panel should have better understanding of data protection and algorithm manipulation.”
Later, Tharoor responded: “Seems some people do need “tutorials” on the mandate of special committees formed to discuss specific bills. This JtCmt is to discuss the provisions of a draft data protection bill&report thereon. Parliament has not been informed of an expansion of its mandate beyond this task.”
Twitter and Facebook were summoned for the second time on Thursday by the JPC after they appeared before the panel last month and opposed the proposed data protection law, India’s first targeted legislation to protect personal data.
Members of the panel asked how some posts get 4,000 to 5,000 “likes” while other posts (by the same person) attract more than 100,000 likes -- a question related to a long-held opinion in many quarters in India and overseas that such companies amplify some content and downplay others.
Facebook executives maintained they are just a platform and not a publisher of posts or content. But Lekhi and Biju Janata Dal MP Bhartruhari Mahtab dismissed this legal argument and said Facebook can’t escape accountability on what is being posted on its platform. Twitter was also asked why it took more than a month to rectify its mistake on Ladakh.