Centre for Internet & Society

Executives from social media firm Twitter’s US headquarters will not appear before a parliamentary panel that has summoned them on Monday over perceived bias towards right-wing handles on the micro-blogging platform.

The article by Smriti Kak Ramachandran and Vidhi Choudhary was published in Hindustan Times on February 10, 2019. Sunil Abraham was quoted.

Executives from social media firm Twitter’s US headquarters will not appear before a parliamentary panel that has summoned them on Monday over perceived bias towards right-wing handles on the micro-blogging platform although a spokesperson for the firm said in a statement that this is only on account of timing and that Twitter is “willing to participate in” a hearing by the panel.

“We have indicated that we are willing to participate in such a broad hearing process. Given the short notice of the hearing, we informed the committee that it would not be possible for senior officials from Twitter to travel from the United States to appear on Monday,” the statement said. The panel’s summons were issued on February 5, with a meeting with the parliamentary panel scheduled for Monday, February 11.

A right-wing group, Youth for Social Media Democracy, recently held protests claiming the microblogging site suspends or shadow-bans accounts that appear sympathetic to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the government.

Anurag Thakur, a BJP MP who heads the parliamentary panel on information and technology, asked IT ministry officials and Twitter representatives to be present at the meeting. He said the committee takes a serious note of Twitter’s response and would take “appropriate action on February 11.”

According to an official aware of the letter sent to Twitter, the company was told “it may be noted that the Head of the Organisation has to appear before the Committee”.

Twitter added in its statement that while it will work with the Lok Sabha secretariat to find a mutually agreeable date for a meeting so that a senior Twitter official (from the US) can attend it has “also offered representatives from Twitter India to come and answer questions on Monday”. “We await feedback from the government on both matters,” the statement added.

In a previous statement, Twitter said that its India representatives do not enforce policy and that this is done “with impartiality” by a “specialized global team”.

Thakur’s intervention wasn’t prompted by protests by Youth for Social Media Democracy alone. According to the people familiar with the matter, the issue has been repeatedly flagged at meetings of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the BJP.

Twitter denied these allegations. In a statement issued on Friday, the company said, “Twitter is a global platform that serves a global, public conversation. Elevating debate and open discourse is fundamental to the platform’s service, and its core values as a company. Twitter is committed to remain unbiased with the public interest in mind.”

“The public conversation around Twitter’s policies and actions may be distorted by some who have a political agenda and this may be particularly acute during election cycles when highly-charged political rhetoric becomes more common. For our part, we will endeavour to be even more transparent in how we develop and enforce our policies to dispel conspiracy theories and mistrust,” Colin Crowell, global vice president, public policy, Twitter, added in the statement.

A senior functionary of the RSS said it was soon after the January 1, 2018 clash between Maratha and Dalit groups in Maharashtra’s Bhima Koregaon that escalated into violence that functionaries of the Sangh began to notice posts on social media that were allegedly “anti-national” and had the potential to create “communal friction”.

The content of some of the posts was construed to be similar to the expressions used by so-called “urban naxals”, this person said on condition of anonymity. Urban naxals is a term coined by the right wing for left-wing intellectuals who, they say, are suspected to have links to Maoist organisations.

“Posts that spoke of destabilising the nation, that attacked the sovereignty of the country were being put up. No action was being taken, despite complaints to Twitter,” the functionary added.

It was then that the Sangh chose to knock on Thakur’s doors.

With 34.4 million users, Twitter has emerged as a key platform for political and social conversations. Given the reach of the medium, even the Election Commission has been monitoring the posts to ensure there is no adverse impact on election processes.

Experts said Twitter and other platforms need to become more transparent. “Unless Twitter and other internet giants implement principles of natural justice, they will always be accused of bias,” said Sunil Abraham, co-founder of the think tank Centre for Internet and Society, adding that the platform does not “provide sufficient transparency regarding its decisions”.

Lawyer Apar Gupta said that the parliamentary panel on IT needs to function more robustly. “It has not invited experts, academics, and civil society voices for deliberations. Also, the outcomes from hearings such as the ones on Aadhaar, privacy. data breaches, and net neutrality, done a while back, remain outstanding. Reports or recommendations have not been made to parliament.”

In general, parliamentary panels do allow hearings to be deferred at the request of someone who has been summoned, although this is usually at the discretion of the chairman and also if the request is made immediately after the summons is issued.

Gupta added that usually, a breach of privilege complaint is made by the chairman of the committee to the Lok Sabha speaker “who will then approve it and send it to the Privileges Committee of the Lok Sabha”.

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