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Parliament panel grills FB officials

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByDeeksha Bhardwaj
Sep 03, 2020 01:40 AM IST

Facebook officials were summoned following a string of media reports in the last three weeks that showed that a key executive from its India operations team intervened to protect a politician linked to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from action over hate speech.

The parliamentary standing committee on information and technology held an over three-hour long meeting with Facebook officials and experts on Wednesday, with its members discussing recent allegations of political bias against the social media company before the meeting was adjourned with no conclusions.

The parliamentary standing committee on information and technology held an over three-hour long meeting with Facebook officials and experts on Wednesday.(Reuters file photo)
The parliamentary standing committee on information and technology held an over three-hour long meeting with Facebook officials and experts on Wednesday.(Reuters file photo)

Facebook officials were summoned following a string of media reports in the last three weeks that showed that a key executive from its India operations team intervened to protect a politician linked to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from action over hate speech.

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“In response to overwhelming media interest in the meeting of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology that just adjourned, this is all I can say: we met for some three & a half hours & unanimously agreed to resume the discussion later, (including) with (representatives) of Facebook,” panel chair and Congress MP Shashi Tharoor said in a tweet.

The meeting was attended by Facebook India managing director and vice president Ajit Mohan. The committee decided to summon the social media company again. The panel, according to a member who asked not to be named, lapses on September 11 and Facebook has been asked to appear in front of the panel that will be reconstituted.

According to a member present at the meeting, some members raised objections over why no one from Facebook’s policy team appeared as a witness. The recent allegations surround Facebook India’s public policy head Ankhi Das, who, according to a report by Wall Street Journal on August 14, intervened to stop a ban against BJP’s Telangana MP Raja Singh.

“They have taken cognisance of so many violations, why has no action been taken?” said this member, asking not to be named.

Congress MP Shaktisinh Gohil reiterated his party’s stand seeking a joint parliamentary committee investigation into the allegations, while BJP MP Nishikant Dubey asked for reports of what exactly transpired during the Cambridge Analytica controversy, this person added.

The Cambridge Analytica controversy refers to the misuse of Facebook in the run up to the US presidential election in 2016 to glean political preferences of Americans and target them with misinformation, a concerted operation that involved Russia-linked individuals and is believed to have influenced the outcome of the polls. The Congress met with Cambridge Analytica before the 2019 parliamentary election but says it did not hire it.

According to a second member, questions were raised at the meeting about Facebook’s neutrality and the backdrop of people working with the social media magnate.

When asked about Das, who is at the centre of the raging controversy for alleged violation of Facebook’s hate speech policy, the company said it would respond in writing, this member added. Hindustan Times reported on Wednesday that the Opposition was pushing for a criminal inquiry into the company’s conduct and a termination of its contracts with the government.

Electronics and information technology minster Ravi Shankar Prasad also wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday, alleging company executives were biased against people who believed in BJP’s ideology.

In the meeting, the members asked about Facebook’s ties with governmental organisations and the Election Commission, and its executive was asked why the company functions as a publisher in the United States but as an ‘intermediary’ in India.

“Facebook asserted that it was maintaining neutrality and global standards,” said the second member quoted above. “They also said that political background had no bearing on their decisions.”

“We thank the Honourable Parliamentary Committee for their time. We remain committed to be an open and transparent platform, and to giving people voice and allowing them to express themselves freely,” Facebook said in a statement after the meeting.

Experts said the scope of the problem is larger than the current exercise can address. “We need the government to take a stand on content moderation,” said Jyoti Panday, researcher with Internet Governance Project, Georgia Institute of Technology. “This is only policy theatre, a PR exercise.”

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